Illya looks up automatically as the office door swings open to his partner's return from his impromptu meeting. Though Napoleon can't have been away more than fifteen minutes, his eyes go directly to the clock on the opposite wall. One hardly has to be a spy of Illya's calibre to recognise the body language of a man in a hurry to be elsewhere.
"A little early for lunch, isn't it?" he asks.
"Not when duty calls," replies Napoleon, "I have a lunch date with Suzanne. She's leaving for Mombassa this evening. After all the help she was to us last month, it would be terribly bad form to miss the chance to see her off."
"The one who claims dentistry runs in her family, wasn't she?" Illya remembers Suzanne, of course, if less charitably than she perhaps deserves. "Was there anything in the meeting I should know about, before you go?"
"Always plenty of need for dentistry in Mombassa, so I hear," Napoleon says, good-naturedly. "And nothing urgent." At Illya's continuing stare, he amends this with, "Section One just wanted to raise a minor issue of our conduct relating to that recent Arabian Affair."
That Napoleon is trying to avoid the subject has Illya's instincts prickling. "Let me guess: they didn't appreciate your disobeying direct orders to come running to my assistance."
Napoleon stills for slightly too long to pass it off as natural. "Ah, no. As a matter of fact, it was your conduct they objected to."
"My conduct? In what-"
"There was a feeling that your interactions with that Arabian girl—Sophie, wasn't it?—may have reflected badly on our organisation..."
That Napoleon is obviously trying to break this to him gently does nothing for Illya's temper. "They were a band of wandering thieves and would-be slave traders, whom I convinced to storm a major THRUSH installation! What part of that reflects badly on us?"
"Well, specifically, they thought it represented something of, ah, a missed opportunity to contribute to your, ah, quota, you see..."
Illya's jaw drops. "Napoleon, she stabbed me in the leg! After that, I'm supposed to, what? Ask her to dinner?"
Napoleon shrugs, sheepish. "Their words, not mine. It's not an official reprimand, Illya, just a note."
Illya snorts. "How official could it be? They'd have to put that in writing."
"I suppose they have to find something to pull you up on once in a while." Napoleon shrugs, in what passes for conciliatory fashion. "How else are they going to keep us on our toes? But I wouldn't worry about it too much," he adds, with a twinkle in his eye, "After all, I'm out to even up our mutual public relations score as we speak."
Sometimes Illya wonders that any work gets done around this place. "Your dedication to the line of duty does you credit indeed," he observes, dryly.
Napoleon gives him a broad grin. "Aren't you lucky you have me around?" So saying, he vanishes out the door.
Illya leans back in his chair, pushes up his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. The worst of it is, he is lucky to have Napoleon around to cover for him, and he knows it. Which doesn't make any part of the situation less frustrating.
In a world where the occasional well-placed enemy mole or major security breach is simply a matter of course, a handful of UNCLE's most sensitive operational directives have never been committed to paper at all. Knowledge of such protocols is passed on only by word of mouth to those UNCLE personnel granted the highest level security clearance, typically behind locked doors in rooms freshly rechecked for listening devices by at least two independent security teams. Compliance in the field (or lack thereof) is thereafter reported in writing only implicitly, and discussed aloud only by euphemism, if need arises for it to be addressed at all.
A new recruit at the New York office might find his-or-herself encountering any number of suggestive euphemisms of this sort (such as 'on administrative leave' or 'tripped over the office cat'). But few can match the mystery of the occasional oblique reference to 'the quota'—as in, for example, "I'm disappointed to note your team seems to have fallen rather behind quota this quarter, despite any number of suitable opportunities to be inferred from your mission reports," or, "Sounds like Solo's just about up for another commendation for his tireless dedication to exceeding his quota this year, the lucky bastard." Recognising that explicit denials generate only more curiosity, senior agents questioned on the subject by junior staff generally say one of three things: 1) if you don't know what the quota is, it doesn't apply to you, so be grateful, 2) that it's a reference to an obscure public relations measure as laid down by an outdated edition of the operating manual, now remembered primarily by office in-joke and otherwise functionally obsolete, or 3) that there isn't one. Most younger staff members probably assume it has something to do with institutional loyalty or case closure rates, which is both more or less the intention, and quite categorically wrong.
In reality, even the euphemism was coined firstly to mislead: the 'quota' has in practice always been strictly more of a guideline, and deliberately so, for both practical and psychological reasons. Practical, because with a moratorium on written records, anything more would be unenforceable; and psychological, because the upper echelons of Section I know perfectly that nothing keeps people on their toes like obligation to a standard that was never more than hazily defined to begin with.
Caught at the wrong moment, Illya Kuryakin might in fact tell the curious young agent all of the above, leaving them both suitably cowed, and effectively none the wiser. Not many people ask again.
All feelings on the quota aside, Illya is very good at his job.
Inarguably one of the more unlikely proposals ever to come out of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in the mid 1950's, Project FY-104 was ultimately on the books for slightly less than two months before the wrong authority figure was made aware of its existence, and had the entire project not merely shut down, but wiped from all records overnight in a whirlwind of righteous indignation. That the proposal had ever been approved at all was little more than a lucky fluke, and had it not arrived discretely sandwiched between two rather more mundane proposed methods for the non-lethal incapacitation of hostile forces (specifically a sleep gas derived from synthetic LSD and a chemical agent engineered to induce chronic halitosis), it's doubtful it wouldn't have been laughed out of the room then and there. Doctor Spencer Newgate himself, the project's progenitor and sole proponent, was informed in no uncertain terms that the US defence budget did not exist to fund research into perverse and tasteless aphrodisiacs, and turned out on the street with some prejudice—thereafter to find himself suddenly and inexplicably unemployable anywhere in the United States, the apparent lack of a single surviving record of his most recent termination notwithstanding.
This last measure may have been a mistake. If there's anything THRUSH loves more than highly unethical proposals for psychoactive aerosols, that something might well be disgraced former government researchers—especially if they come with a borderline-psychotic belief in their own maverick genius and an axe to grind against the establishment. Doctor Newgate came with all of the above. THRUSH may not ultimately have bothered to read through his proposal any more thoroughly than had the Aberdeen high command—the details were all but irrelevant.
Doctor Newgate's tenure at THRUSH Laboratories lasted a respectable three years and change before that relationship, too, turned sour. Between the Doctor's studious disinterest in developing the antidote required to unlock his new drug's full potential as a blackmail aid, and the discovery during an internal review that the primary output of three long years of funding was a truly obscene number of hours of footage of copulating research monkeys, someone in THRUSH's upper command made the decision to pull the plug. In what may have been the last great stroke of luck of his career, Doctor Newgate himself caught wind of his upcoming termination with just enough time to scarper, and, by one report, was sighted working as a gogo dancer in San Francisco some time later, having apparently rediscovered his calling in life. Denied the chance to make a proper example of his failure, THRUSH were left in the possession of several tanks of colourless, odourless, experimental gaseous agent, which no-one still in their employ was sure what to do with.
In the early months of '62, an otherwise routine bust of a minor THRUSH satrapy on the outskirts of Brooklyn took an alarming turn with the discovery of a set of stolen blueprints detailing the precise location of an accessible intake vent in the air conditioning system of UNCLE's New York office. That those same documents came attached to a detailed plan to flood the entire air conditioning system with an experimental chemical agent would, in and of itself, have constituted a serious wake-up call for the entire security department at UNCLE NY. That the discovery was made only three days after the date on which said plan had been scheduled for execution—that was an international security scandal in the making. Word of precisely what the good men and women of UNCLE NY may have already been unknowingly gassed with was so completely outrageous that, were it not for The Incident, it might never have been believed at all.
The trouble with missives requiring all documentation to be destroyed is that mankind has set upon the habit of writing things down for a reason: facts, left to their own devices, are known to go soft and spongy around the edges. Some of the more salient facts about The Incident—say, the identities of the two male UNCLE agents caught performing invasive (and decidedly unsanctioned) cavity searches upon one another in an unlocked storage room—were perhaps best lost to the mists of time. Whether those two—or possibly three—unfortunate men had been caught in that storage room a day or two before or a day or two after the bust on that THRUSH satrapy would later vary by individual memory, even among agents who were present at the time. The question of whether any of those two (or perhaps as many as four) parties involved had any prior form for that sort of behaviour might never be settled at all.
What mattered, of course, was never the particulars of The Incident. What mattered was that UNCLE now had not only documented evidence that its entire staff had been gassed with a pheromone engineered to produce unrestrained homosexual desire in male subjects, they had observational evidence to back it up. Structured and appropriate institutional panicking procedures could now commence, and did.
Very little could have more greatly horrified the intelligence community than the suggestion that some of its best agents might be secretly homosexual—and therefore, by the conventional wisdom of the day, most likely also communists, enemies of the establishment, double agents and prime targets for blackmail, who might at any moment develop habits like mincing, lisping, or wearing women's clothes in wholly inappropriate circumstances. About the only things that might have scared the community more were major security breaches and novel new chemical weapons falling into the hands of enemy forces, and the work of the long-vanished Dr. Newgate once again checked every box. If word of this got out, it wouldn't be just the New York office at stake—the entirety of UNCLE could be brought down by association. THRUSH wouldn't even need real stockpiles of agent FY-104—the threat alone could bring the world to its knees. The future of all western civilisation might well depend on what UNCLE did next.
Long before the medical staff had even begun to assess the scale of the disaster, one contingency measure was already clear: no-one could ever be allowed to know. Not THRUSH, not UNCLE's own foreign allies, and absolutely not the general public. The world must be assured that UNCLE remained a competent, respectable, and above all, heterosexual body of men (and some women), at all costs. And to ensure the world was left in no doubt on this score, it was now the solemn duty of every able-bodied man still employed under their auspices to take full advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate that this was so.
For Illya Kuryakin—then only lately transferred from Europe, and more or less immune by nature to any great anxiety that he could have left the office post-exposure very much less heterosexual than he'd ever been to begin with—the whole fiasco was privately, outrageously funny. At worst, a development like this could hardly make it any harder for him to blend in at his new office. It ceased to be quite as funny once it had become apparent that damage control measures were unlikely to be rescinded even a year or more after the fact, and lost all remaining amusement value around the point when not one but both of UNCLE's first two attempts to assign him a regular partner ended within a month, with the other man asking to be reassigned, solely on the basis that he found Illya, quote, 'too distracting' to work with effectively.
The upside of this rapid shuffling of assignments was that it eventually led to his being assigned to work with Napoleon Solo—a man willing and eager to cover for all his partner's shortcomings, and perhaps even fill the entire department quota single-handedly if necessary.
The downside was that it led Illya to being assigned to work with Napoleon Solo, a man apparently willing and eager to fill the entire department quota single-handedly.
And there, for Illya Kuryakin, the real troubles began.
Illya, in his life as both a naval officer and professional spy, has known a lot of men—some, thanks to various remits for covert surveillance, in shockingly intimate detail. There are few variants on human sexual preference that could surprise him nowadays, no matter how broad or narrow, eager or restrained. Whenever he hears someone expounding some gem of folk wisdom on 'the normal sexual appetite of the healthy, young man' he rolls his eyes.
Illya has never in his life known any man so enthusiastically heterosexual as Napoleon. He's not entirely sure he believes that a man so heterosexual as Napoleon could exist at all.
That Napoleon likes women is one of the first things Illya learns about him in the early days of their partnership. Napoleon likes experienced society women, perhaps with a string of lovers or a high-profile divorce behind them, who know exactly what they want and aren't afraid to ask for it. He likes timid ingénues, making their debut on his arm in couture gowns he'd picked out for them specially, or designer jewellery that sparkles in perfect complement to the stars in their eyes as they float through the evening on a cloud. Napoleon is easily won by women who are sultry and suggestive or flirty and forward, who have their eyes on him from the moment he walks through the door; and he'll spend whole evenings charming women who are standoffish and smart-mouthed, who accept his invitation to join him later at some other venue with a quirked eyebrow and a grudging 'perhaps', who may let him dance for their entertainment all night before deciding if they find themselves suitably charmed in return. He has an open partiality to blondes—unless the woman who's caught his eye tonight happens to be a brunette (or a redhead, or perhaps even a silver vixen), in which case he will readily compose poetry to their raven locks and the dark beauty of their eyes. Napoleon likes women. Everything else seems to be a matter of flavour.
He doesn't take all of them to bed by any means, no matter what the office rumour mill may suggest. With many of his more reticent dates he doesn't even seem particularly inclined to try his luck. But as the man unfortunate enough to be left holding the other end of the wire on a great many of Napoleon's more memorable infiltration jobs, Illya is left in no doubt that Napoleon takes to bedding those who seem amenable with as much enthusiasm as he brings to every prior part of the process. No other agent works nearly so hard to ensure the good men from UNCLE will be remembered in the best possible light by all, wherever the job may take them.
(Napoleon does, at least, usually have the decency to look faintly sheepish the morning after Illya's been left on the wrong end of the wire on those sorts of missions, though not even that puts much of a dent in the natural smugness he radiates every morning after he's gone to bed with some beauty—something which already happens too often for comfort.)
Napoleon's type, in summary, seems to be women who may be convinced to find him charming, and for a professional as skilled as Napoleon, those are never in short supply.
What Napoleon likes is attention, Illya decides, about a week and a half into their partnership—then spends the next three stewing in rising frustration as it becomes apparent that, between Napoleon's professional pride, sizable ego, and tolerable sense of humour, there doesn't appear to have been the space left anywhere in his psyche to house a single real insecurity. He thrives on female attention, but he doesn't crave it like an addict. He admires it like a connoisseur, savours it like a gourmand, and then disengages and with the grace of a gentleman from some era past, leaving naught but a trail of sighs and girlish giggles in his wake. It would all be intolerable if he wasn't also such an unmistakably good agent, and that he manages to be both may be the single most intolerable thing about him. By all rights, Napoleon's weakness for the fairer sex ought to have brought his career crashing down around him years ago, and yet even Illya can't deny that Napoleon's instinct for the precise moment at which to transform from a lover to a man of action rarely leads him wrong. And Napoleon's charm and confidence don't work only with the ladies. All manner of people they meet, both on the job and off, prove highly susceptible. And UNCLE, both on and off the books, almost can't reward him for it fast enough.
By the end of his first month of being unimpressed, then grudgingly impressed, then unimpressed all over again with his new partner's propensity for charming everything in sight, Illya gives in and admits he rather likes Napoleon Solo. Not only do they work together surprisingly well together, now they've found one another's speed, but in all that time not one of his cutting remarks has gone over Napoleon's head. Once their initial mutual wariness wears off, he's both pleased and unnerved to discover that Napoleon Solo not only keeps up but sees right through him with uncanny regularity, and by all indications, has found nothing not to like in what he sees.
By the conclusion of their third mission together, Illya has begun to feel that he might come to find even Napoleon's most ridiculous excess quite tolerable. So when Napoleon crawls into the tent Colonel Skalicky has been so good as to provide them with for the night, Illya finds himself quite charitably disposed towards his company—even before his partner produces the bottle of champagne he'd appropriated from somewhere around the THRUSH laboratory complex over the hill, which the Colonel's men are even now dismantling.
"I couldn't find any glasses, but it seemed a shame to let this go to waste," Napoleon declares, popping the cork neatly off into the fading dusk outside their tent before proposing a toast. "To the caging of a great many little birds at the hands of UNCLE's most promising young partnership." He swigs from the bottle and offers it to Illya.
On another day, Illya may have taken this as ordinary self-congratulation. This last job had seen both their diplomacy and their ingenuity exhaustively tested against the obstructive might of the Colonel, who'd proved himself stolidly uninterested in any amount of evidence of serious human rights violations going on at that new laboratory complex over the hill, which his superiors had received such very nice bribes in exchange for approving. The Colonel was nonetheless considerably more moved by the evidence that their generous guests might be plotting a coup, which Illya and Napoleon had been excellently placed to bring to his attention, having planted the greater part of it themselves. They have, in short, plenty to celebrate. But in the last two nights of feverish activity, their partnership has passed its second month and now seen the conclusion of their third successful affair, and tonight marks a milestone of sorts. Section I likes to see stability in its enforcement teams; it makes the rostering process that much simpler, but no partnership will bear much fruit if its component parties aren't well on board. If either of them remains in any doubt about the wisdom of continuing this partnership, the time has come to speak, or forever hold his peace.
Illya raises an eyebrow, raises the bottle back to Napoleon, and decides he can let his membership of the brotherhood of cynicism lapse just this once. "And to many more successful missions to follow," he toasts, and tips the neck of the bottle up against his lips.
In the wavering glow of the small oil lamp sitting between them on the floor, Napoleon beams at him as he accepts the bottle back for another drink.
Though the encroaching night is cool and their allowance of military-issue blankets are worn and thin, two warm bodies flushed with half a bottle of champagne prove ample to heat the confines of their little tent comfortably. As the bottle drains, Illya wonders what might happen were he to lean across, perhaps reel Napoleon in by the tie, and kiss the champagne off his lips. His gut says the bold approach might not be ill-received, and—UNCLE regulations and all prior evidence of Napoleon's preferences aside—his gut rarely leads him wrong.
But he isn't sure he likes the thought Napoleon has charmed him too so quickly as all that, and if there's anything to it, the moment will surely come again. If this partnership continues as it's begun, they'll have all the time in the world.
It's not a moment he's dwelt on since, though in his more morose moments, he does occasionally regret not having gone for it back when their relationship had been new enough for experimentation to be more permissible. Even had Napoleon turned him down, at least Illya would have his answer.
The fundamental problem with Napoleon—or more particularly, with any theory he might form in hope of explaining Napoleon to his own satisfaction—is that Illya never can make up his mind just who is taking advantage of whom. That Napoleon's social life has blossomed under the strictures of the quota is indisputable, but to what degree the quota is the reason, and to what degree the quota is merely the excuse, remains frustratingly opaque, even to him.
In Illya's experience, there are only two types of men so flamboyantly and resolutely heterosexual as Napoleon appears to be: those enslaved to their own libidinous obsession with the opposite sex, and those who believe they have something to prove—whose fragile egos may come crashing down the moment some woman rejects them. Whatever Illya may think of his partner's libido, Napoleon is self-evidently more a willing servant than a slave, so the first option fits him poorly at best. But the existence of the quota ensures Napoleon has both nothing and everything to prove: nothing, because no-one long acquainted with the man could doubt either his appreciation for or his own appeal to the feminine sex; and everything, because UNCLE policy treats him and every other man present for the fiasco of '62 as an addict perpetually on the verge of relapse. What that means, no matter how farcical UNCLE's corporate cult of masculinity may be, is the tantalising possibility they might just be right in Napoleon's case is very hard for Illya to forget.
As Number 1, Section II of one of the top five offices in the world, Napoleon is under more scrutiny than anyone. Does he, on some subconscious level, feel that pressure more keenly than he might willingly admit? A lot could be explained about his behaviour if there was some part of him, however buried it might be, working very hard to sublimate the occasional attraction to something else...
And there the problem that is Napoleon Solo only complicates tenfold, because Illya is far too well-educated not to recognise his own wishful thinking for what it is. No matter how satisfying it might be to diagnose the pathology behind Napoleon Solo as repressed homosexual desire, he'd be a poor scientist indeed not to recognise his own bias. The idea is simply too attractive to take at face value. (The dangling question of why Illya finds it so very attractive is a minefield all its own.)
Unfortunately for Napoleon, the alternative conclusion, that he's exactly the hedonist he appears, set loose by accident of policy—isn't that much more complimentary. Sublimation may be a largely discredited mechanism for sexual repression, but there are certainly a great many men who would be having a great deal more sex without the strictures of society to limit them. And yet...
Even years into their partnership, Illya feels no closer to an answer.
The other half of the trouble with Napoleon is that no matter how many women Illya may have had to watch him woo, there are still those moments that make him... wonder. For a man so incurably fond of flirting with each and every member of the opposite sex to cross his path, Napoleon sometimes seems to forget to stop flirting when there isn't a woman in sight.
"I am afraid," Napoleon announces, buttoning his cuffs in front of the mirror, "that I will have to deprive you of my fine company for a few hours. Do you have everything you need?"
Illya frowns, upsetting the balance of the ice-pack resting on his brow, and forcing him to shove it back up out of his eyes. The only woman he can clearly remember meeting today had been a THRUSH medical technician holding the syringe. He tries to recall whether there'd been any attractive nurses back at the hospital earlier in the afternoon, but his head swims with the effort. "When did you manage to line up a date in all the excitement?" he asks, suspicious.
Napoleon's smile is rueful. "The only date I have lined up for this evening is with the town mayor. I'm told he wants to know on whose authority people have been detonating explosives within reverberation distance of his constituency. UNCLE has deputised me to smooth things over."
"Ah." Now that Illya looks again, Napoleon isn't dressed for an evening out. He needs that second look—everything in his field of view is still fuzzy around the edges, thanks to whatever they'd given him in the hospital to help bring him down. "How lucky they had someone so uniquely qualified to explain how that came about."
Napoleon catches his eye in the mirror. "He may have some questions about reports of a nearly-naked man attempting to make a getaway over a rooftop too, of course," he adds, which Illya supposes is much the retort he's been subconsciously waiting for for some time. But if Napoleon wants to laugh at him, he's probably earned it.
"Then you can tell him his nearly-naked man has been reunited with his pants and is recovering comfortably in your hotel room," Illya suggests. Not the same pair he'd been wearing this morning, admittedly, wherever those might be now. Lost in the blur that is nearly everything after his THRUSH captors had wheeled him into the boardroom on a gurney is the key detail that would explain why he'd been down to his underwear when Napoleon finally got to him out on the roof. Perhaps the lab techs had wanted him to look vulnerable? It's certainly possible. Illya thinks he'd rather prefer that to be the case, when the alternative is that he'd rid himself of his pants later, on his own initiative—for reasons he has little hope of reconstructing now, and even less desire to try.
A captured UNCLE agent must have seemed the ideal subject for a live demonstration of their new fear toxin: after all, if the drug could reduce a professional enemy spy to a paranoid wreck, it could surely do the same for anyone. Having experienced first hand the devastating effects of Gervaise Ravel's own fear agent, Illya would hardly have been inclined to argue the point, and had resigned himself to the inevitability of another such experience—at least up to the point where his adrenaline-fuelled thrashing had overcome the restraints holding him to the gurney, leading to an altercation in which he had apparently wrestled a gun away from a guard and wounded at least three people before climbing out a window. It was probably for the best he was out of bullets by the time Napoleon got to him with a syringe full of the antidote—by then camped out under the overhang of an access stairwell on the roof, glaring blearily out into a world that was bright and sharp and over-full, and he himself distinctly under-dressed.
Here in the present, Napoleon raises his eyebrows in amusement, and it's only when Illya sees his expression that it occurs to him that the part about 'recovering in Napoleon's hotel room' probably came out sounding more suggestive aloud than it had in his head.
"You'll understand if I might word that one a little differently in case there are any little birdies still hovering in our vicinity." Napoleon's eyes faintly glitter with amusement. "I should probably check in with the clean-up crew while I'm out."
"Let me know if they've found my dignity in the rubble," says Illya, who is too mature to attempt to hide under his pillow from the train-wreck that has become of his day, but only just. "I suspect it will be right at the bottom, probably in several pieces."
Napoleon winces, and has the decency to look fuzzily sympathetic. "You know I would have offered you my coat for the way down..."
"If you wanted to complete my image of the neighbourhood flasher lurking in the bushes behind the playground, certainly."
"I don't know that it's so bad as all that," Napoleon tries, his wince settling into something more in the vicinity of a pout.
"I'd argue with you, but I honestly don't remember much of it," Illya admits. "I'm going to have to read your report just to find out what I've been up to all day, which I can't say I'm looking forward to."
"I don't know what you mean," says Napoleon, straightening his tie. "Agent Kuryakin performed an admirable diversionary service, shaking off the effects of the latest THRUSH paranoia toxin to disable at least three guards before making his escape, leading them all on a merry chase across the rooftops and providing Agent Solo with ample time set the charges and plan their exit strategy."
Illya shoots another look at the mirror, though it's far too high up to reflect his own face from where he sits on the bed. He must look truly dire if Napoleon is working so hard to lift his spirits. Perhaps for once, defensive pessimism has done its job. "So. No date then?"
"None lined up at this time." Finished with his tie, Napoleon pats him on the ankle as he passes the bed. "But you never do know how the evening may turn out."
Illya feels uncomfortably certain he can see the shape of his own already. "If the mayor has a beautiful daughter, I'd advise you to leave her alone."
"And risk having to admit such poor behaviour to our superiors, after? Illya, you wound me."
Napoleon, Illya decides, is far too chipper for a man whose own partner had very nearly taken him as an enemy plant earlier that day. "One would almost think you'd spent enough time wrestling nearly naked people to the ground for one day."
"Or vice-versa," Napoleon comments, or mumbles, in an off-hand sort of way that Illya is less than sure he was supposed to have heard at all. From the depths of the crowded fog of his recollections, a memory stirs. Illya experiences a sudden and vivid flashback to what may have been his first moment of clarity in what had felt like countless hours of being hunted across the rooftops of the compound by a seemingly infinite army of armed THRUSH enforcers, dogging his footsteps and imitating the voices of his friends. Then, in the midst of all that fury, the terrible realisation that what he'd taken as an enemy impostor posing as Napoleon was no enemy at all but the real thing, in incalculable danger from an untold number of THRUSH snipers peering from shadowy stealth helicopters over their heads, if Illya couldn't get to him right now...
"Please tell me I didn't." Sense memory is a vicious thing, and Illya fervently hates it. Why the thought of Napoleon having to tackle him in order to stab him with the syringe of the counter-agent should be the less mortifying option is beyond him to justify; all Illya knows is the very organic fear this could be one he'll never manage to live down.
Stopped in the doorway, Napoleon looks back over his shoulder with a playful smile. "Illya," he says, tapping the side of his nose, voice pitched low as if sharing some particular secret, "a gentleman never tells," and leaves Illya alone in their hotel room with a bag of ice on his head and a warm, fluttery feeling in his gut he'll later try to blame on the cocktail of drugs working their way through his system, or perhaps indigestion—anything, really, except the sinfully low pitch of Napoleon's voice as he flirted shamelessly to reassure his convalescing partner.
For Illya, who has always been far too sensible to waste his energy pining over someone without the least interest in his own sex, Napoleon is an education in more ways than one. There's only so long a man can spend agonising over the minutiae of another man's sexual habits before he has to admit he's invested, and Illya knows perfectly well he'd passed the point of 'so long' long ago.
At some point, self-awareness becomes its own punishment. There's nothing scientific or objective about his need to prove that Napoleon Solo was never so wholly heterosexual as he seems, and the moments when Illya is drunk or maudlin enough to admit that to himself are no fun at all.
The new measures enacted under the quota system aren't limited to regulations changes. In the immediate wake of the incident, a number of non-essential male staff and communications personnel from Section III and below are discretely pensioned off or made excellent offers elsewhere, and swiftly replaced with a new wave of young women recruited straight out of college, their impeccable qualifications matched only by their curvaceous bodies, perfect hair and sultry glances. Someone actually installs a sun lamp in the staff lounge. The communications staff object, and move it to operations, where they can use it in between important calls. UNCLE wants to make very sure that no man still working in headquarters lacks for suitable inspiration.
That work still gets done in the communications division is something of a minor miracle.
Here, once again, Napoleon excels. No other man in UNCLE can be so regularly counted upon to flirt enthusiastically with every communications girl he gets on the line, at any time where there's the least chance that THRUSH may be listening in. Napoleon will even flirt in locked bunkers sunk beneath state-of-the-art safe houses on the most secure lines UNCLE has to offer, because you never know, or at least Illya presumes that must be the reason, in his more sardonic phases. Even if THRUSH doesn't appreciate it, the communications staff clearly do. Many of the communications girls like flirting with Napoleon Solo so much they've begun to turn up their noses when other agents try their luck, which Illya would have thought was rather defeating the whole point. Napoleon Solo can hardly be heterosexual enough to personally cover for the entire section, no matter how hard he works at it, but the occasional reproachful look from Mr. Waverly or carefully coded memo from Public Relations don't much seem to curb his enthusiasm.
"Could we aim to have this report finalised by 6:30?" Napoleon asks him one evening. "I have a date with Wanda at 8, and I'd like to give myself time to freshen up before I go to pick her up."
For mundane security reasons, every woman whose voice will ordinarily be transmitted across UNCLE's secure frequencies is to be referred to as 'Wanda'. To avoid accidental slip-ups, agents are encouraged to get used to calling them all 'Wanda' around the office and in person too. There used to be a number of Waldos working for Section IV as well, but none survived the great purge of '62. Illya has never been entirely sure how many Wandas there are working at the New York office at any given time, but he's uncomfortably certain Napoleon has slept with every last one.
On this occasion, something more than déjà vu clicks for him. "Is that the same Wanda who broke her date with Mark this morning?"
"Mark?" says Napoleon, confused.
"Yes, Napoleon, Mark. As in Mark Slate, the awfully skinny British agent who has been sulking very obviously all day," says Illya, meaning quite specifically 'not the Mark Slate who mentored you, who has been telling everyone he is 39 for the last four years, and whose absence from our roster we are all working very hard to keep under wraps while he and that very pretty young partner of his are busy working undercover in the Chicago mob. That Mark Slate.'
"Oh," says Napoleon, guiltily. "Mark. Of course. Though I'm sure it's no business of mine if she did." He winks. For whose benefit, Illya can hardly guess. In the privacy of his own head, he sullenly formulates the theory that Napoleon dates so many Wandas because it mitigates the risk of saying the wrong name in bed. The idea is viscerally satisfying for almost two minutes before he realises how horribly petty that is, and goes back to focusing on the report they have to have done by 6:30 if Napoleon is to have proper time to change his suit and refresh his cologne before meeting the latest in the apparently infinite line of Wandas queuing for his attention.
He wonders if Mark would like to go out for a drink after work, so they can commiserate silently about the trial that is life in the same department as Napoleon Solo. Mark turns out to be willing, even if he seems a little unclear on exactly why.
"How's April doing?" Illya asks in passing, some increasingly less certain number of rounds into the evening.
"Which one?" says Mark, out loud and in public, which is Illya's cue to find him the one taxi in all New York not being driven by a THRUSH plant and get his colleague safely home. A taxi he doesn't get to share in order to save half the fare, just in case someone sees and imagines they're going home together.
That last part technically isn't Napoleon Solo's fault in any way, but Illya is almost grumpy enough to blame it on him just on principle.
It would probably be unfair to attribute Napoleon's meteoritic rise through the ranks of Section II entirely to his dedication to fulfilling his quota at every opportunity, but it certainly can't have hurt. If Napoleon is not in fact god's gift to women, he might still be god's gift to UNCLE's Propaganda and Public Relations Department (the only division below Section II granted full understanding of the nature of the quota, and whose name doesn't explicitly include and counter-intelligence because they're better at their job than that—much too good to allow even themselves to be consistently listed in the office directory. Younger agents looking for Propaganda and Public Relations occasionally find themselves at the finance department, or a dead end instead). Napoleon has taken to heart the notion that any civilian granted a glimpse behind the curtain of their establishment should leave with favourable impressions. If that means taking some young lady to dinner, then perhaps home for drinks to show her how deeply UNCLE appreciates her generous contribution to the cause of world peace, then Napoleon will gladly find time in his busy schedule. If the young lady is spoken for, or is perhaps not a lady but a young man, then finding it in UNCLE's budget surplus to fund an expensive international honeymoon—or perhaps pay off a few debts or a small mortgage or two—is simply Napoleon's way of saying 'thank you'. And if the young lady isn't too polite to refuse the chance to keep that lovely couture gown that fitted her so well and brought out her eyes so wonderfully, she may well get to do just that. If Napoleon has any say.
This goes on until sometime in the second year of their partnership, when an over-zealous accountant from the actual finance department discovers just how much of their budget has been going into 'community outreach', and takes a long, hard look at what Napoleon (followed in his example by a number of junior agents) has been writing into the expense sheets. The accountant promptly files a scathing report suggesting that he can see no reason why UNCLE oughtn't be capable of saving the world on their almost weekly basis for a fraction of the current costs. The report circulates widely and is quickly taken to heart both at and above Waverly's own level of authority, and what had once seemed a nigh-infinite supply of blank cheques available to the agents of Section II all but dries up overnight. For any other agent it might have been the black mark that ended his career, but the scandal rolls off Napoleon's record without hardly leaving a mark at all. How could anyone hold such a minor issue as frivolous spending against a man so indefatigably suave, so laudably heterosexual as Napoleon Solo?
Even Illya struggles to hold his partner's love for casually throwing around vast sums of money against him. Though Illya has qualifications of in spades, there is probably nothing he needs from a partner so much as he needs Napoleon's flair for donning a tuxedo and a winning smile, and going to schmooze with society folks at expensive parties like he was born to it. Frankly, if there is anything he needs more, presumably Napoleon must have that too, because by the time he's settling into the role of Number 1 of Section II, Illya has matched him promotion for promotion, settling comfortably beside him at the rank of Number 2.
Word of that last so-important rank-shuffle reaches them Rome in late '63. New York's previous Number 1, Sam Marlin, who's weathered the stress and the scrutiny of that rank through some very trying years, has announced his intention to retire early from the field at the ripe young age of 38. One of the last of an older generation of agents who truly did prefer to work alone, Marlin has elected to prove his heterosexuality once and for all by marrying his sweetheart from Research and Documents, before accepting a comfortable desk-job down the hall. By the usual standards of unplanned UNCLE promotions, this is all very anti-climactic, but Waverly still wants his new Number 1 presumptive back stateside post-haste, on the first flight available.
The first flight available is tomorrow morning. Gemma Lusso meets them with the news at reception, barely ahead of the office gossip mill, which is always keen to share anything more than moderately interesting and not actually classified. The timetable doesn't give them much downtime to recover at the end of the drawn-out affair that brought them to Rome. Still less for Napoleon to make good on a number of half-formed engagements with various pretty young things from around the local office (all of whom have admittedly been remarkably helpful over the last couple of weeks). If he and Illya aren't too tired, however, Gemma informs them that 'a few of the girls' have thrown together an impromptu party to congratulate them before they go.
Napoleon was hardly going to be too tired for that.
Illya has not had occasion to visit UNCLE Rome before this trip, and has found much in the atmosphere both familiar and not. Lacking the status of UNCLE's five head offices, Rome has neither the prestige nor (in those days) the budget of New York. Instead, it has Carlo Venerdi, who runs his operation without pretension, preferring to lean back and delegate freely, making sure to always provide his trusted lieutenants enough rope to work with, and the less-trusted enough to hang themselves by.
But perhaps what distinguishes Rome is also Gemma Lusso—on paper, Venerdi's personal assistant—in practice, a woman more years of fieldwork and experience concealed beneath her simple office uniform than much of Rome's Section II. Gemma is stunning, shrewd, professional, and holds court over the office in either Venerdi's presence or absence with equal aplomb. She and Napoleon seem to have some history, or perhaps she merely knows his reputation—to his frustration, Illya cannot make up his mind which it is. Gemma is not one to show her cards without meaning to, but she handles Napoleon like an old pro. She's far too wise a woman to be easily charmed by his ilk—though she may, Illya later amends, be also too wise to turn up her nose at the a little honest fun, should the opportunity come knocking.
It's possible she organised that party. Illya doubts she's attending as a chaperone to the other girls. More of a mentor, perhaps.
Illya himself bows out early, pleading exhaustion, and retreats to the adjoining hotel room. Sleep, however, stubbornly avoids him. The dividing wall is far too thin to properly muffle the chorus of girlish giggles and moans (regularly interspersed by a more familiar voice of masculine persuasion) that comes trickling through to Illya's ears. Little doubt as to what sort of party it's become in his absence.
How appropriate, Illya thinks, glumly, that he should find himself celebrating his promotion to Number 2 of Section II to the tune of his partner busily proving his heterosexuality to a brand new audience. In the midst of a country as Catholic as the day is long, and yet still far more lenient toward persons of less-than-heterosexual proclivities than anywhere Illya has been in recent memory. And for that, in further irony, Rome can thank the legacy of the Napoleonic Code, from the days when that statement referred to rule of law, and not a dubious personal stance against ever leaving a lady unsatisfied.
The muffled noise of the party is not, however, enough to wholly drown out the soft click of a key turning in the lock to the outer door.
Illya has his Special pointed at the door by the time it opens. The man standing there is quite the last person he'd expected to see, though he does at least have the decency to look sheepish. "I would have knocked; I wasn't sure if you were asleep."
"Napoleon?" He's wearing his pants, belt and shoes, but his shirt is unbuttoned, his jacket and tie carried over an arm, and there's a mussed quality to his usually impeccable grooming that makes it very clear this is the same Napoleon Illya just heard enjoying himself next door. A rather enthusiastic squeak from the adjoining room saves Illya the trouble of completing the obvious question.
"Ah. Well, lovely party, but it's been a long day. I decided you had the right idea in retiring early." Napoleon grins. "The girls were very understanding; some of them opted to carry on the fun without me."
Illya knows perfectly well he and Napoleon were the only men present. All voices remaining are very female. "But you..." A breathy moan from the other room cuts off his statement. "Was that Gemma?"
"It's not against the law in this country, you know," says Napoleon, conversationally, with a smile that wants the whole world to know there is no facet of female sexuality he doesn't know and approve of. "Actually, there's a rather interesting history behind that..."
"And you walked out?"
Napoleon shrugs and makes his way across the room. "Call me old-fashioned, but I've always felt I make a better showing when I don't have to divide my attention." Illya watches him unbuckle his belt and toe off his shoes. "Rest easy, my friend: UNCLE Rome has the situation well in hand."
"And where are you planning to sleep, while they're using your room?" Illya asks, suspicious. Though this hotel room is luxurious compared to many they've inhabited in the last year, there's only one bed—the double Illya already occupies.
Napoleon looks at him pointedly. "There's plenty of room. Move over."
Illya grumbles but acquiesces. "I should've known the promotion would go straight to your head."
Behind him, the covers shift as Napoleon makes himself comfortable. Illya peeks back over his shoulder. "Has it occurred to you to worry that Section I may learn you eschewed the company of several eager young women to spend the night in bed with another man?"
Napoleon pats him lightly on the shoulder. "It's alright," he breathes in Illya's ear. "I trust his discretion implicitly."
Illya mutters to himself, pulls the covers up to his ears, and finally drifts off to sleep not much later, to the familiar sound of Napoleon's snores.
Adding insult to injury, the worst thing about spending one's career stewing in intermittent frustration over the most highly classified of all top-secret directives is that opportunities to vent his frustrations are few and far between. By the time they happen Illya is usually getting dangerously close to boiling point. Napoleon, by dint of having both the requisite clearance and being the single person Illya spends more time with than anyone else, is usually the unfortunate recipient. Considering his role in magnifying Illya's frustrations with the subject, this seems only fair.
"One might suppose an operation as sophisticated and well-informed as the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement would be capable of reacting to an assault on its agents' masculinity with more maturity than a schoolboy who's been accused of punching like a girl, yet here we are: wasting our efforts on a directed campaign of misinformation, desperate to establish our unanimous heterosexuality in the eyes of an enemy who very likely have no surviving record of the operation that first exposed us at all!"
"It was a serious security breach..." Napoleon tries, in that faintly baffled manner he adopts at each new reminder that his partner insists on being so invested in this.
"But hardly our first, and it will not be the last. This very year our entire Geneva office was annihilated when THRUSH gained access to their air vents, and yet no-one seems to have proposed we commit to some ridiculous charade that those men are still alive. Don't let us pretend Section I's reaction is anything less than Freudian levels of overcompensation, for what more than likely amounts to some very modest fraction of our staff having moved all of a point or two up the Kinsey scale from where they began! But now the measure is in place we are stuck with it, because any man who moves to rescind it will as good as have declared himself a queer by association!"
"Well, be that as it may, Illya, we both know the difference between martyrdom and humiliation on a lasting reputation," says Napoleon, who insists on being infuriatingly calm and reasonable about the whole thing, "A scandal like our whole head office allowing itself to be doused with fairy dust could haunt us for years. UNCLE can't operate if we're the punch-line to a joke in the international intelligence community. And for another thing, all I asked you was: how sure are you that the room isn't bugged?"
Illya sighs. "Sure enough to stake my professional reputation on it, apparently."
"That's good enough for me," says Napoleon, clapping him on the back in a conciliatory sort of fashion. "Come on Illya, we've still got THRUSH to deal with today. We can tackle the childish masculine anxieties of the establishment tomorrow."
"Why don't we plan our weekend too, while we're at it?" Illya grumbles, but says no more on the subject.
All in all though, Illya thinks he might just have managed to deal with the long parade of civilians, with the Wandas and the Sarahs and even the incessant flirting over the radio, if only he didn't also have to deal with Napoleon's very literal predilection for sleeping with the enemy. One is never short of honey traps in this business, and Napoleon seeks them out with the single-mindedness of a swarm of suicidal flies. THRUSH is old-fashioned enough to believe that no evil league is complete without a full and seductive complement of the traditional femme fatale—and while Napoleon is neither old-fashioned nor foolish enough to rule out ever raising a hand to a lady, it's plain that given the option, he'll always choose to make love rather than war. Not even if the lady in question snuck a deadly spider onto his suit that very day. Keeping Napoleon in one piece is next to being a full time job even when he doesn't make a habit of walking into vipers nests with a bouquet of roses and no backup, and Illya is very nearly convinced that death at the hands of some gorgeous woman of ill intent really is exactly how he wants to go.
"You must tell me sometime what it's like, romancing a woman who would kill you without a qualm, if THRUSH ordered it," he asks Napoleon once in a fit of pique, having long since given up on getting him to see sense on the matter.
"It adds spice, Illya," Napoleon tells him, "And besides, I flatter myself that she might have a few qualms," which is exactly the attitude that makes Illya want to wring the man's neck himself and save his paramours the trouble.
Actually, Illya sometimes imagines he might even be able to deal with the femme fatales if it wasn't for Angelique, whom Illya hates with a fervour that startles even himself. He hates the way Napoleon's whole body goes loose and inviting at the sight of her, throwing years of trained professional caution to the wind in a stroke. He hates the way she wraps him around her little finger with hardly a whispered word. He hates her perfectly coifed hair and her deep, husky voice. But most of all, he hates knowing that Napoleon has disappeared in her company for days at a time after no less than three different affairs—and that even with all that time at her disposal, not once has he been stabbed, poisoned, shot, replaced with a robot double, drugged and shipped to South America, infected with some nasty venereal disease, or even more than lightly bruised in her care, making all Illya's otherwise excellent arguments about the insanity of leaving Napoleon along with her look petty and ridiculous.
"She likes to think she's seducing me over to her side," he tells Illya once, with a wink that ends up being rather more theatrical than conspiratal.
"Leading a woman on, Napoleon?" Illya grumps. "Isn't that beneath you?"
Napoleon waves a finger. "I never said that was the only reason. But it's a nice excuse, when she feels the need to make one."
Illya rolls his eyes skywards, though as Napoleon is looking elsewhere the effect is largely wasted. "Is that what she tells her superiors she's doing, wasting time with you?"
"Perhaps. But then again, what her superiors don't know won't hurt them."
Illya frowns. "Doesn't that defeat the point of the exercise?"
"Exercise?" says Napoleon, who looks blank.
"Convincing THRUSH of what an upstanding and heterosexual operation the good men of UNCLE represent," Illya reminds him, dryly.
"Oh, broadly, perhaps," Napoleon agrees, with not a hint of remorse. "Mind you, I'm not sure it proves anything that a man falls for Angelique."
I beg to differ, thinks Illya. He spends the afternoon concocting an elaborate theory whereby the women of THRUSH are themselves a band of raging lesbians, all busily staging the reverse of the very same scheme UNCLE has inflicted upon its men, leaving both caught up in synchronised efforts to fox their counterparts into believing they are something they're not. A shame some of Napoleon's stories make that seem so unlikely.
Unfortunately for Illya, here UNCLE policy is explicitly on Napoleon's side. There is no audience for their masquerade so important as the men and women of THRUSH, and there is no better way to convince the agents of THRUSH of UNCLE's firm commitment to the way of heterosexuality than to provide as much direct evidence as they could ask for. If that means their best agent has such a reputation for womanising that THRUSH's own honey trap division barely need to bat their eyelashes at Napoleon to get him to follow them anywhere they like, then that's just so much more evidence the system is working. As the man more often than not responsible for getting Napoleon out of those sorts of messes once he's in them, it's enough to drive Illya to distraction.
Then again, perhaps there's something to be said for Napoleon's system. The only women of THRUSH ever to take a personal interest in Illya seem to prefer whips and cattle prods to champagne and intimate massages. Illya takes very little pride in his practiced ability to maintain a studiously bored expression through an extended session with one of THRUSH's most especially fatal femmes, and though Illya may have no particular desire to sleep with any of them, he enjoys whips and cattle prods about as much as he enjoys watching Napoleon disappear down the road in the passenger seat of Angelique's corvette. Occasionally, he wonders how they'd respond to the suggestion they might achieve roughly the same effect making him sit through an extended recording of Napoleon having sex with one of their number.
Probably best not to give them ideas.
He's always assumed Angelique's not into whips and cattle prods herself. Napoleon's never said anything to suggest as much, and he's dropped enough hints in Illya's presence about Angelique's particular appeal, preferences, and even stamina, that Illya would like to think no real secrets remain. He certainly hopes this isn't the day he learns otherwise—particularly given that Angelique had been the one who'd caught him sneaking out of her facility after slipping his bonds, even after every other man he'd passed had taken his stolen guard uniform at face value.
He doesn't think he'll be slipping out of this set of bonds, and certainly not while Angelique is watching, which she has been ever since she tied them in the first place.
"Does Napoleon know you're moonlighting as one of our guards?" she asks, smirking as she circles his chair on her stiletto heels, an infuriating half an inch outside the range where Illya might have been able to kick her hard enough to make it worth the trouble. "I dread to think what UNCLE must be paying you boys nowadays."
Illya gives her a very long, cold look. "Does he know you're the one behind THRUSH's latest recruitment drive?"
The curve of Angelique's lips suggests she shares Napoleon's belief in the tenet of 'what they don't know won't hurt them'—but Illya doesn't get to any more hear what she might think about the matter, because Napoleon gets there first.
"Well, he didn't know," Napoleon announces, arriving to Illya's rescue just when he'd been in very real danger of being bored to death, "but he has just made a most intriguing discovery."
Napoleon is dressed in black fatigues. There's a smear of dirt on his cheek and he looks every inch a man who's spent the last hour crawling through a pipe, or perhaps an air duct—and here he is, flirting with Angelique as though they've just met at a party. It's almost enough to make a man wish he wasn't being rescued at all.
"Darling!" croons Angelique. "What a treat! We weren't expecting you nearly so soon." She points Illya's gun pointedly at Illya's head. "Would you be so good as to drop your weapon, dear?"
Napoleon does not drop his gun. "I'm afraid it's not going to be as simple as that, my dear Angelique. You see, we have quite the force waiting outside to overrun this compound at our signal."
Illya makes a careful study of Napoleon's countenance, and is relieved to conclude that for once, he doesn't seem to be bluffing.
"I've only come in ahead," Napoleon continues, "to see if I couldn't secure a civilian hostage or two before the excitement begins."
"You can forget Doctor Johansson and his assistant," Illya tells him, before Angelique can stop him. "They've been working for THRUSH from the start."
"Have they?" Napoleon looks at Angelique, who only looks smug. "Well then. I suppose it's just me and Illya here who'll be leaving the party early."
"Aren't you forgetting one thing, darling?" says Angelique, pressing the gun barrel deeper into Illya's hair. "We do have our little impasse to resolve."
"Well, let's think that one through, shall we?" Napoleon smarms. "I drop my gun, you... tie me up, on my own chair, and you've got yourself two hostages to show off when our UNCLE friends arrive—but neither of us are civilians, and Mr. Waverly is so very fond of reminding us we're all expendable. That's not a risk I'd be keen to take. Or perhaps... we could negotiate."
"A truce, darling?" Angelique proposes. "I let your friend free, and we all sneak out of the party together? How does that sound?"
Napoleon smiles and steps towards her, letting his gun droop to a very unprofessional angle. "Leaving all the other little birds in the fire, Angelique?"
Angelique gives him a lascivious smile of her own. "Only if you give me my guarantee there won't be a cage waiting for me on the outside."
"Then I think we may be able to do business." Napoleon is now almost close enough to reach out and touch her. "Though you'll have to give my friend back his gun—and I will have to ask the right to search you first, just to make sure you're not carrying any other... surprises."
Illya can hardly see for rolling his eyes. The worst part of being an atheist, he decides, is having not even the very limited comfort of being able to wonder what he could possibly have done to deserve this sort of indignity. He doesn't check back in again until Napoleon (finally) arrives to untie him.
"Long day?" Napoleon inquires, lifting the outermost layer of Illya's stolen uniform so he can slide his Special deftly back into his holster.
"I don't know what you mean," says Illya. "THRUSH prisoner accommodations are all but comfortable these days. I've had my weight off my feet all afternoon—even if the company leaves something to be desired."
Hands emptied, Napoleon moves behind the chair to wrestle with the knots. "Illya, my friend, sometimes I feel you enjoy getting yourself tied up a little too much."
"How else am I supposed to get them to show me the location of their secret bases?" Illya grumbles, rubbing his wrists. There's no point checking the tracking device on his tie-pin, sitting secreted away in a pocket. Obviously it's working, or Napoleon wouldn't be here. He frowns at Angelique and turns back to Napoleon. "You know, no jury on earth would convict you for turning her in the moment we get out of here."
Napoleon pouts a little, but recovers quickly. "We all have our weaknesses."
Illya is hardly in any position to argue. He's about to let Napoleon get away with this, isn't he?
Counting everyone from Mr. Waverly himself to the janitors and cafeteria staff, there are just over three hundred people employed at the New York division at any one time. Within a few years of The Incident, probably less than forty remain who've been with UNCLE long enough to be party to the quota system. The stresses of life in the Enforcement divisions ensure that relatively few manage to stick it out for more than a handful of years at most, and a healthy exchange rate of inter-office transfers has steadily chipped away the numbers of even those in sections below. The average staff member has probably read enough of the employee conduct handbook to have noted that the wording of the directive about homosexual behaviour is unusually strict, and doubtless the occasional newly hired accountant has some surprises in store as he or she learns just how many perks of the job UNCLE is willing to fund for its agents. Hardly any of them would ever give much thought as to why.
After all, it's hardly as though draconian rules about sexual conformity are unusual in this business. Agents may be regularly expected to seduce whosoever their superiors have decided needs seducing, but what they do on their own time is scarcely less regulated.
It's some small comfort to Illya that Mr. Waverly seems to agree with him on at least some of his frustrations with the quota, if only because the time Napoleon spends flirting with the secretarial pool has left its mark on his productivity. The minds that dreamed up that particular regulation may recognise his authority, but Waverly does not run Section I single-handedly, nor does he try to. Most of his section spend far too much time cloistered away in their offices, where they sit surrounded by enough intelligence on all the very worst things going on all around the world to kill almost any desire for fresh air. Still, Waverly's hands-on approach to managing Section II does give him a unique perspective on how regulation translates into practice, distinct from the rest of his branch.
"Do you ever wonder, Mr. Kuryakin, whether in granting our agents carte blanche to establish their credentials on company time, that we've created a system ripe for abuse?" Waverly asks him one afternoon, Illya having the pleasure of being assigned to assisting him with paperwork while a minor sprained ankle sets itself to rights. "Oh, the work gets done, for the most part, but the number of hours some of them attribute to the cause in their reports—the delayed flights, the extended hotel stays—it defies all belief."
Illya rejects at least a dozen possible replies before saying, "The thought has crossed my mind, sir."
"Things were different in the forties, you know," says Mr. Waverly, a wistful look in his eye. "We weren't above sending our men into the arms of the enemy back then, oh no—the job had to be done, whatever it took. Some of the stories I could tell of the old Baker Street Irregulars would be all but unprintable to this day, you know..." He seems to shake himself here. "But any man in the service who spent his evenings so engaged would at least be expected to bring back a full report of provocative subjects broached during pillow talk, not simply patted on the back and congratulated on a good job." He sighs, tapping his pipe out into the ash tray. "But perhaps I'm showing my age."
"Or perhaps that item of policy has served its purpose and is due for a review," suggests Illya, in a carefully neutral voice.
Waverly gives him a shrewd look. "Has Mr. Solo given you some particular reason for concern of late?"
He left me fighting off a furious THRUSH lieutenant in the rain in order to prove his heterosexuality to that dippy blonde in the car who was starting to get suspicious about his lack of interest, thinks Illya, with some vehemence. Not that he hadn't won the fight, or that Napoleon hadn't known perfectly well it was within his means, but it was the principle of the thing that hurt. "Not more so than usual, sir."
Waverly 'hrms' at some length. "Well, absent any pressing reason for concern, I suspect it's going to be rather late to get it onto the agenda this quarter. Given that it's scheduled to come up for review anyway at the end of the year, I doubt the rest of Section I will be keen to hasten the matter by a few months between now and then."
But virtually no policy ever gets revised on its scheduled review, thinks Illya, helplessly. The entire branch only shows up to check it off the agenda so they can get back to debating funding breakdowns and internal politics! Privately, he's not sure he trusts Napoleon to last another year, what with the rate he goes all but literally courting his own death. He's not sure he trusts himself not to strangle his partner out of pure frustration first.
But outright protest runs too much risk of being taken as signs of jealousy—or at worst, grounds for reassignment—so Illya holds his tongue.
But for better or worse, both he and Napoleon are still there, still partnered, and still very much living under the shadow of the quota when that review meeting rolls around. As a privilege of their rank as Numbers 1 and 2 of Section II, they are in fact the very first in line to learn its outcome. Within hours of that happy anniversary, they find themselves walking out of Waverly's office laden with paperwork covering the key policy decisions reached during the latest meeting, and their ears still ringing with the promise that Section I had resolved to spend yet another year officially subsidising Napoleon's womanising habit, which is of course far too important to trust to paper.
Illya makes it all the way back to their shared office before he explodes, a fact of which he is privately quite proud.
"Do you realise," he tells Napoleon, "that we have now been maintaining our ridiculous quota system more than four times longer than the maximum estimated period of dose efficacy recorded in Dr. Newgate's own notes?"
"Have we?" Napoleon looks briefly up from the drawer he'd been hunting through for his last notes on Section II schedules. "You can never be too sure, I suppose."
"The good doctor would surely be thrilled to know how much we have done to prolong his legacy," Illya grumbles, slumping into the nearest chair. "Especially given that we never had any compelling reason to believe the mechanism of his drug was more than purely psychosomatic."
"Psychosom...?" Napoleon echoes, with a certain amount of disbelief. "You think THRUSH found a way to realign a man's orientation purely by the power of suggestion?" To his credit, he doesn't sound insulted by the notion—if anything, he seems more than a little intrigued.
"Why not?" This is not, in fact, a line of reason Illya has given any particular thought to in the past, but there's nothing like a good burst of righteous anger to fire up the imagination—almost nothing could stop him following this through now he's begun. "The change is wholly psychological and necessarily subjective. If the experts are to be believed, as many as one man in three may be convinced to admit he has experimented with his own sex. There is every reason to suppose a great many more have repressed such urges so effectively they are themselves unaware. Why shouldn't the news we have all been exposed to a chemical designed to produce homosexual tendencies be sufficient to bring it to the fore?"
Napoleon's eyebrows do an odd sort of dance. "But... we caught those agents in the storeroom before we got hold of the THRUSH report? Didn't we? They can't have been influenced by a report they hadn't seen."
"Remarkable how hard it is to keep track of that sort of chronology when no-one is allowed to keep notes," says Illya, icily. "But even if the report came after, is it so unbelievable that UNCLE might already have had two agents under its auspices so inclined?"
Napoleon's face takes that faraway look again. "Two? I thought there were supposed to have been at least three of them when they opened that cupboard...?"
"The point," says Illya, "is that without the report, no-one would have thought anything sinister was afoot. One way or another, the possibility the effects never existed outside our own heads is very hard to conclusively disprove."
Napoleon shrugs. "That may be true, Illya," he says, in his Reasonable voice, "but it's also true that if THRUSH had caught wind of our storeroom orgy mere days after their little science experiment, they're likely to have taken the 'maybe they were that way to begin with' defence as a little overly convenient." He gives Illya a conciliatory sort of look. "They're not much more likely to take 'but your own documents say it should have worn off months ago' as a defence either."
Illya sighs and rubs his eyes. "So ultimately, we are suppressing not the evidence that it worked, but anything that might lead the enemy to think it worked."
"Tends to be about the size of it in this business." Napoleon agrees. "You know, speaking of durations of efficacy and all that... didn't we have some sort of follow-up therapy program for those affected? Very discreet, of course—even I don't know who was in it."
Illya recalls something of the sort having being mentioned at the time. He remembers making a point of not putting his name down, even with the vague promise of provision for 'appropriate sexual outlet' if symptoms persisted. "I think so. Presumably that would have provided us a wealth of useful information on the true duration of effects, were anyone involved allowed to write anything down."
"Well don't look at me," says Napoleon. "You're the one with the PhD in cognitive psychology."
"It was in electromagnetic field theory," says Illya, more or less by automatic, though he's really not in the mood.
"Close enough," says Napoleon with a wink, then he pauses, as if struck by a thought. "You know, now that I think of it, I never did ask you if you yourself..."
"I cannot say I noticed any change to my own preferences post-exposure," snaps Illya, before Napoleon can so much as complete the question. This is true, and exactly what he'd told any UNCLE staff member who'd had reason to ask him. Which doesn't make it any less of a coward's answer, or a fairly significant lie-of-omission.
Napoleon seems a little taken aback, and the jaunty smile he turns Illya's way doesn't quite reach his eyes. "Well, I suppose that makes two of us." He hesitates. "You do know that if-" he begins, only to trail off in the face of Illya's glare. He coughs slightly and turns his attention back to the schedule he's managed to find somewhere in the midst of all Illya's griping. "Does tomorrow after lunch sound like a good time to call a meeting with the rest of Section II? We can cover the basics of the latest policy review there," he says, in a fairly obvious attempt to change the subject.
Illya slumps a little further into his chair and reminds himself, not for the first time, that taking his frustrations out on Napoleon will solve nothing, especially when none of them are his fault. "It's as good a time as any. Not that we'll be able to cover the whole subject matter of the policy meeting with the newer agents present, of course."
"Probably not worth our while calling a second meeting of agents who were here in '62 just to let them know the rule hasn't changed though," says Napoleon, thoughtfully. "Most of them probably didn't even realise it was up for review. Anyone who wants to know the specifics can come talk to us in private."
Though the fight has all but gone out of Illya by now, that much needs correcting. "At least two of them have been given a warning for non-compliance with the quota in just this last year alone. I'm sure they would find the matter of some interest."
Napoleon looks at him in surprise. "Were they? I didn't realise. Has Waverly been having you help review mission reports again?"
"Nothing so official," says Illya. "I overheard a conversation in the cafeteria recently. Agent Cantrell was expressing some anxiety over the subject, and Agent Quint was quite sympathetic—so much so I would be surprised if he hadn't experienced the like." Illya might well have found it in himself to express some of his own sympathy, had they not been the same two agents who'd so bluntly rejected his partnership early in his time in New York. "Not everyone is blessed with your luck with the ladies, you know."
"Cantrell, huh?" Napoleon shifts, looking uncomfortable. "That's awkward. Maybe I should've given him a pointer or two when we were still partnered."
"You were partnered with Cantrell?" This Illya hadn't known, and it surprises him more than it should have, given that he'd known perfectly well that all three of them had been in various trial partnerships during that period.
"Oh, briefly—only for a few months, back before Waverly put you and me together. I thought we could've made a decent team, but apparently he thought otherwise." Napoleon shrugs again. "Something about finding me too distracting. Odd fellow."
It isn't that Illya necessarily minds having to snog the occasional woman in the name of world peace and security. He takes no pride in those occasions when he's had to mislead some innocent young thing about his intentions to protect his cover, but of all the very worst things he's ever had to do in his years at UNCLE—from the tedious to the demeaning to the downright cruel—having to kiss someone he might not otherwise have pursued wouldn't make the top ten. The trouble is that being expected to so, not for his own benefit, or for hers, or even really for the job, but first and foremost in the hope that someone will see him doing it takes what little fun there would have been in the exercise, scalps it and leaves it spreadeagled in the sun.
Except, that is, if the person seeing him do it is Napoleon. Which Illya probably shouldn't enjoy so much as he does, considering Napoleon is both the primary reason Illya doesn't have to do it much more often, and the one person in all of UNCLE Illya can trust not to set him up or report on him if he fails. Even Mr. Waverly's tacit disapproval of the quota system only goes so far, and the tangled mess of expectations Illya finds riding on his shoulders during solo work never fails to overcomplicate the simplest of jobs.
To wit: there's nothing inherently suspicious in Alice Baldwin's wide-eyed curiosity about the mysterious young spy whom her dear uncle's cousin (ie, Waverly) has been gently blackmailed into sending over to help with that awkward business with the dagger, which had appeared so significantly in Mr. Baldwin's bedroom overnight. Nor is there anything inherently unlikely about her increasingly unsubtle desire to get to know him better, possibly in private. Napoleon is, after all, not available, and one doesn't have to watch the way women flock to his side for long to recognise that the mystique of his profession alone does half the work.
That Illya has come here as their white knight can hardly have hurt, validating their fears even as he prepares to stand vigil while they sleep. Alice is not too proud to admit her own nerves, though she seems in two minds about the danger.
"I'll be close by," he promises, as she prepares to lock herself in her bedroom for the night. "I'm sure you'll be more comfortable in the guest room," Alice offers. The rules of hospitality have evidently been well-impressed upon her. "No. I'll be, um, prowling around the house."
"Well, I won't sleep," says Alice, "thinking about you."
It's possible she means only to show concern for the long, lonely night he has to look forward to. Possible, if not likely. "That's nice, but unnecessary. Good night."
"Illya?" Alice stops him one more time before he can go. "If you should, uh, want anything...." Buried in the tone of that delivery is something that goes well beyond the margins of ordinary hospitality. "Everything I want, I have."
"I hate people who are so well adjusted." Alice gives him half a smile. "Well, see you in the morning."
Little risk of missing how well she looks forward to that.
But one doesn't get far in his profession without cultivating a healthy degree of suspicion about the motives of what might seem to be perfectly innocent people, and Illya cannot help but catch a whiff of contrivance about the idea that Mr. Waverly's very attractive cousin-once-removed would happen to stumble into his path, on the very day his more gregarious partner is unavailable. A better man might presume Waverly would be above pressing his own family into service to test his agents' dedication to their duty, but Illya is not a better man, and has worked for Alexander Waverly too long to assume anything of the sort. Even supposing Alice is not a plant, the odds that Cousin Alexander will come to hear the details of his behaviour are better than any wise man would gamble his career upon. The possibility that Illya may find himself in rather a lot of trouble if he lets Alice down gently weighs heavy on his mind.
Normal employees, Illya reflects glumly, only have to worry about being caught sleeping with the boss's niece, not the risk he runs by turning her down.
Having made up his mind that his duty is clear, Illya makes up his mind that the whole of Section I can go hang, that his otherwise exemplary record can withstand a blotch or two, and that Miss Ursula Alice Baldwin can damn well go put her moves on someone else, if UNCLE has not in fact put her up to it to begin with. This fit of pique lasts him as long as it takes to get back to the house, where he meets Alice again face-to-face. In the next quarter of an hour, Illya finds himself also facing, in sequence, 1) the fact that transferring Miss Baldwin's stock into his own name has provided her no real protection whatsoever, 2) two very angry Dobermans, and, more privately, 3) the breathtaking immaturity of the impulse to blame any part of the situation on Alice herself. Even if UNCLE is watching him, there's no reason to assume there's anything more nefarious behind her advances than an honest desire to date and/or sleep with him, and perhaps obtain a little comfort in this trying time. He rather doubts she has the guile for more than that anyway.
Nonetheless, when Napoleon meets them, many hours later, at the gate to Delilah Dovro's mansion with the offer of a ride back to greener pastures, Illya finds himself experiencing a sudden and shocking rush of doubt that Alice's preference for his company would survive the journey, with Napoleon and all his charm only an arm's reach away. Nevermind that on any other day Illya would probably have been grateful for the reprieve; today the offer rankles like grit in an open sore. Between Napoleon, Waverly and the rest of UNCLE, Illya feels scrutinised and patronised at every turn, and he wants nothing more than to be left alone to make up his own mind about whether or not he might want to offer this particular girl some personal comfort on his own damn time. The look on Napoleon's face as Illya and Alice walk away from the car after the excitement is just the icing on the cake.
By the time the two of them make it back to his own car, however, the hastiness of that particular decision has found its way back to haunt him. A mile is a long way to walk in waterlogged shoes—let alone Alice's waterlogged shoes, which she'd hardly selected that morning with the expectation a long hike might be on the cards. She does make a token attempt to invite him in for a warm shower when he drops her home, but the mood is barely salvageable. Illya is wise enough to know what sort of company he's likely to be tonight, when he honestly wants nothing more than to go home to his own dry pyjamas. If the whole thing is a bit of an embarrassment, Napoleon never needs to know.
Ready as Illya is to wash his hands of the whole flea-ridden affair when he wakes up the next morning, there is still the fact that protocol—not to mention common courtesy—does rather demand he call on Alice again, if not for a proper date, then at least to check in. Given the note things ended on last night, a proper date is probably the least she deserves. Come to that, it's a pretty good chance to get himself a tick in that particular column of his report card for the year. Alice may not entirely be his type, but that's no fault of her own—besides, he rather appreciates how forward she is. Illya is no Napoleon, and inasmuch as he wants anything from women, a willingness to cut most of the extended courtship out of the process is very welcome indeed.
Which is all very well, except that the thought of kowtowing to the quota turns his stomach so badly that it's not until he finds himself blinking blearily at the clock over the stationary cupboard, wondering how on earth it could be 4PM already, that he realises he'd somehow missed lunch altogether. Ashamed of his own indecision, Illya throws up his hands, picks the most expensive-sounding haute cuisine hotel restaurant he can recall Napoleon mentioning as a favoured date location, and calls Alice to make a date, already mentally preparing to write a substantial bill onto his expense account. If UNCLE insists on worming itself into his sex life, then the least they can do is subsidise it.
Thus it is that Illya finds himself sitting opposite Alice in his best suit in a cosy corner booth the following Friday, calmly encouraging her to pick anything on the menu without worrying about the price. Over the ensuing three courses of exquisitely prepared (if not extravagantly-sized) portions, they discover they have virtually nothing in common—except, of course, the shared experience of having very nearly been torn apart by angry dogs on several occasions in the past week, which does at least provide ample fodder for one evening's polite dinner conversation.
"You know, being a lady of independent wealth ain't what it's cracked up to be," she tells him, over dessert. "I've owned that stock less than a week, and already I'm halfway to believing it's more trouble than it's worth."
Despite his best intentions to make it last, Illya's own soufflé is already long gone. He tells himself that ordering a second just because he's not paying the bill is probably not appropriate date behaviour. He tells Alice, "If it helps, I imagine that rogue gypsies making dishonest attempts to part you from it will prove to be the exception rather than the rule."
"I barely feel like I came by it honestly myself. Now here I am, a rich heiress at the tender age of twenty-six, doomed to wonder if every boy who looks my way hereafter is after me or my money."
Illya gives her a wan smile. "I imagine no boy could be looking very hard if he concludes that is your only attractive feature."
It's a fairly terrible line, but Alice beams at him. "Say, do you dance?"
Illya eyes what passes for the dance floor, where a dozen or so well-dressed couples are already waltzing their way around one another in front of a six-piece orchestra. "Not with any great skill, I'm afraid."
"Well, neither do I, so at least we'll match," says Alice, with an impish grin. "Wanna try it?"
Illya does honestly consider it, but finds his enthusiasm for making a scene of themselves lacking. "Tempting, but I'm not sure the other patrons would appreciate our efforts."
Alice takes this with reasonable grace. "Not that this isn't a lovely place, but it doesn't seem entirely like your kind of scene."
She's not wrong. "Perhaps not," Illya admits. "A friend of mine recommended it." It's halfway true, though Napoleon likely would have recommended something a little more casual, if Illya had actually asked him what might suit.
Alice gives him a shrewd look and nudges him with her toe. "You wanna get outta here?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
The whole evening is, miraculously, not a disaster—even if Illya does wake up the morning after with the late Lester Baldwin's Great Dane glaring disapprovingly at him from the end of the bed. Without breaking eye contact, Illya pokes Alice awake and makes her take the dog away and feed him before getting up himself. Evidently, with the gypsies in prison, Alice needs a human bodyguard no more than her late uncle did.
"Not much of a dog person, are you?" she asks him, as they fix themselves toast in the kitchen.
"A dog person?" This is a colloquialism Illya doesn't immediately recognise.
"As in, person who'd prefer to own a dog than a cat. Though I suppose you could always be more of a hamster-person, or a parrot-person, maybe."
Illya stares fixedly at his toast. "The life of an agent does not mesh well with the keeping of pets. We are so rarely home."
"And that's no way to keep a dog," Alice agrees. "They need people too much. You might manage a cat though—they're much more independent."
"Perhaps," says Illya, "but if a cat does not need you, is it your cat at all?" Alice doesn't have an answer.
He doesn't see her again.
But the true kicker—the final insult in the parade of indignities that is life as the partner of Napoleon Solo—is that every once in a while, the world calls on Illya to explain his partner to other people, thus denying him even the small, petulant luxury of telling himself he will never understand the man. If he's honest (and, for preference, also drunk and sentimental), Illya might even have to admit such incidents are not even necessarily Napoleon's fault—though that particular question has never yet been put to him under torture, and hopefully never will.
There's no early warning, before Illya sets foot on the pavement outside Del Floria's in the first minutes of his lunchbreak, that today is to be one such day. Yet hardly has the door swung shut behind him before he's picked up a tail, and a painfully obvious one at that. What such a rank amateur is doing following a professional spy is neatly answered about a half a block further on when he catches a good look at his stalker's reflection in a shop window, and comprehension arrives by bulk delivery. The young Miss Lucy Vermont continues to dog his footsteps as Illya leads her on a brisk, meandering tour of the upper east side, until his spite runs out and he takes what passes for pity on her, accepting that the time to either lose or confront her has well and truly arrived. He ducks into a small café, sets his back to the wall by the door and waits.
"If you're looking for Napoleon," he tells Lucy, after giving her the time to peer furtively around the door, realise he's nowhere in view, step inside properly for a better look and begin to seriously ponder the mystery of where a grown man could vanish in a space of this size—but not quite enough time to get around to looking over her shoulder to find him standing right behind her, with excellent vantage on her every move. Once she's mostly done jumping half out of her own skin with a stifled shriek, Illya concludes, "he's not with me."
"Illya!" squeaks Lucy. "You just took ten years off my life!" She swipes at him with her handbag, and only then gets around to remembering what he'd actually said and what she's doing there. "He's... not meeting you out here somewhere then? I was hoping maybe..."
Illya folds his arms and lets her think about that.
"Oh," she grumbles, "of course one spy isn't going to tell just anyone what another spy is up to. I suppose I should've seen that one coming."
"If you need to reach Napoleon on a matter relating to your recent assistance to UNCLE, you could very easily reach us by phone."
"And I did try that first, really—but the receptionist wouldn't say any more about why Mr. Solo wasn't available to take my call or when he might be back than you just did, and when she asked if I wanted to leave him a message..." Lucy's eyes flick down and up shyly. "I guess I lost my nerve."
"So you thought perhaps tailing an UNCLE agent would be a less stressful way to find him?"
"Well you put it that way, maybe this isn't the best call I've made lately. It didn't feel like it was worth wasting proper UNCLE time over, is all—it's not as though THRUSH is camped out on my doorstep again or anything. It's just..."
"Personal?" Illya suggests, when no conclusion to that sentence appears to be forthcoming.
Lucy nods and hunches a little.
"Ah," says Illya. "In her defence, if our secretaries put through every phone call from some young lady seeking Napoleon Solo, even when he were available, he would get very little done."
Lucy sighs. "I was afraid you were going to say something like that."
Over her shoulder, Illya takes note of a waitress watching the show with the air suggestive of someone trying to make up her mind whether she needs to ask these people standing in her doorway to consider airing their dirty laundry in some different venue.
"Perhaps we should sit down," he suggests. If he must deal with Napoleon's awkward cast-offs, he can at least do it somewhere that will serve him a decent sandwich and some coffee, and prevent his lunch break going entirely to waste.
In the course of that one affair now a fortnight gone, Illya had not spent enough time with Lucy to form more than the most general impressions of her—those being chiefly that she said 'oh my god' a lot despite a professed ongoing effort to break the habit, tempered by some evidence of quick wits and good instincts, when she could be prevented from second-guessing them. It was those selfsame instincts that had gotten her involved in the affair to begin with, and which had very nearly led her to blow Illya's cover before they'd been properly introduced at all—though it's probably not fair to hold that against her. He hadn't had much more to do with her; Napoleon had spent the lion's share of the time with this particular innocent, and she'd warmed to him as quickly as any other. Illya hadn't supposed her to be especially Napoleon's type, but apparently that hadn't prevented Napoleon making more than his usual impression on her nonetheless.
Today, Lucy lets Illya order her a milkshake along with his lunch, and natters nervously about nothing in particular while they wait for the waitress to bring them their orders and then leave them alone. She sips it without much enthusiasm when it arrives, but it'll be something for her to do while she's trying not to look at him.
"I don't want you thinking I don't understand the drill here," she tells him, fiddling with her straw. "Excitement's over: time to thank my lucky stars we all made it out in one piece, then put it all behind me. Maybe someday I can tell my grandkids all about that time I helped UNCLE take down a major THRUSH counterfeiting operation and then had dinner with a real life James Bond. Now it's time to go back to being regular little Lucy, who buys the prettiest designer knock-offs she can afford on her dime-store salary, and sits around waiting for Joey from down the street to work up the nerve to ask her to the dance already." Lucy pokes vaguely at the milkshake without much enthusiasm. "But it's been a little harder than I counted on."
Illya takes a bite out of his toasted sandwich and waits.
"It's just... it was the first time I got to do something that really felt like it mattered, and the thought of just going back to that little shop I work in... while he's out there probably swinging from a chandelier in Rio, or..."
"So this is about Napoleon?" Illya supplies.
Lucy shoots him a look and exhales shortly. "Okay, I do know how this sounds. Probably just another silly, love-sick girl who got a few exciting days—and one rather lovely night—with a dashing secret agent, who doesn't want it to be over so soon." She pauses, looking expectantly at Illya. "That was your cue to reassure me otherwise."
"Was it?" says Illya. "I do sometimes miss these things."
"Alright, smart-alec. I get the picture. I caught the hints he's not the kind of guy any sensible girl would go pinning her heart on. No-one's that comfortable taking a lady he barely knows out on the town who hasn't done it before a few dozen times. I know I'm not the first girl to get her head all turned around over a man like that—and he sure didn't promise anything more than that one date." Abandoning her much-abused milkshake, Lucy looks down at her hands. "I just... can't shake the feeling that it meant something more than that, you know?"
"It meant more than that to you," says Illya. "Even if Napoleon has done this a thousand times, he knew that."
"So you're saying it was all for my benefit?"
Illya shrugs. "Our department feels strongly that civilians unfortunate enough to be caught up in our affairs should not feel themselves abandoned the moment the danger is past. We would all prefer people's last impressions of us be pleasant. Napoleon simply brings his own personal touch to matters."
"And leaves a thousand broken hearts in his wake, I'll bet," Lucy sighs. "Just the type everyone warns you about."
"We don't exactly do a job that best facilitates long term relationships. Napoleon simply doesn't see that as a reason to abstain completely."
"But there's just something about him that..." she trails off, screwing up her face. "I don't know, maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see, but I can't help wondering... is that really what he wants? There's just something about him that doesn't seem like... maybe he'd like someone to keep."
Illya regards her seriously. "It's not for me to speculate as to what is to be found in the heart of a man like Napoleon," he tells her, because Clara is none of Lucy's business. Illya isn't sure Clara should have been any of his business, excepting only that if she hadn't become his business, then neither she or Napoleon would have made it out of Terbuf alive. "But you must realise it was never Napoleon's nature that would keep him from settling down, if he wanted to."
Lucy chews her lip. "All live fast, die young, never knowing when he's going to be home again or if he's coming home at all—that'd be hard for anyone."
"Men like ourselves resigned ourselves long ago to the knowledge that the job must come first."
"It must be a lonely way to live though," Lucy sighs. "Never having anyone to come home to."
"Better that than to spend your days wondering if they'll be there when you return. Our job is not safe for anyone who would become close to us. But Napoleon, I think, has the rare talent of being able to find something of that person in every woman he spends time with."
"Is that what he does?" Lucy asks him. Illya shrugs. She twists her hands together and frowns. "What if... but what if I could follow him out there? I'm no professional, but everyone's gotta start somewhere, right? If little ol' me could do as much as I did already with no more than a high school diploma and my own wits, who's to say what else I could do if I put my mind to it?"
Illya blinks at her—this is an angle not in the standard script. "You want to sign up with UNCLE now?"
"Is it so crazy? Anything would be better than going back to that little shop." Lucy faintly twitches with energy, and Illya sees, in her enthusiasm, that this is no mere spur-of-the-moment notion to her—she's thought about this, however roundabout her mode of bringing it up.
"I didn't say it was crazy," Illya tells her gently. "But you should understand, not all we do is exciting or dangerous. A great deal is every bit as tedious as any mundane job you've ever done."
"I don't care! I can do tedious, just as long as I get to feel like it's achieving something more noble than bringing my boss' retirement that much closer."
"And most of all," Illya goes on, firmly, "if it is truly what you want to do with your life, don't do it for Napoleon Solo. He's no sure reward."
Lucy nods, the burst of energy that had come with her admission tempered now, constrained under the determination to prove herself. "I know. Even if he was, it'd have to take years to work my way up to being any fit partner for him."
"Not to mention," Illya adds, stiffly, "that he already has a partner."
Lucy starts; it seems the minor matter of the position being filled had not previously occurred to her. "Oh!" she says. "I'm sorry, Illya, I didn't mean... I mean... obviously you wouldn't pass him off to just anyone, would you?"
"I have not spent this many years keeping that man alive to risk any less," says Illya, gaze fixed somewhere over her left shoulder, working to temper the need to bristle. It's not for some flighty girl who has known Napoleon barely a day or two to suppose she could possibly love him better than a partner who has lived, worked and slept by his side for as long as Illya has. But Lucy has apologised, and there's no point in punishing her further for her misstep.
More gently, Illya suggests that she consider whether she might be better suited to some form of charitable works, or medicine, perhaps, if her brief time with UNCLE has left her inspired to do something meaningful with her life. In these days of reduced budgets UNCLE is in no position to offer to fund her higher education, but a letter of reference from their office could open any number of doors. Lucy promises to think his suggestions over, thanks him, and leaves. Illya pays for the meal and, satisfied that he's no longer being followed, crosses the road to where another, slightly smaller café stands opposite. A motley assortment of open-air tables stand under a shade cloth in the sun outside, the nearest of which holds a plate containing a partially-eaten shepherd's pie and salad, and a mug of coffee, also barely touched. Illya stops beside it.
"You can come out now, Napoleon," he says. "The danger is past."
Napoleon lowers the newspaper shielding his face and folds it neatly onto the table. "You were so deep in conversation by the time I came by I didn't want to interrupt."
"A likely story." Illya slumps into the chair beside him. "You owe me for lunch and a milkshake."
To his credit, Napoleon makes no attempt to protest this very reasonable fee for foisting his own personal problems off on his partner. "How was Miss Vermont?"
"Trying very hard to talk herself out of a foolish infatuation with a most unsuitable man. She needed only a little encouragement." Illya steals a fork and helps himself to a mouthful of the uneaten side of the pie. It seems a shame to waste good food simply because Napoleon has lost his appetite. "Though she's apparently considering a career in espionage."
"Espionage?" Napoleon stares blankly across the street, as if he might still be able to catch Lucy's afterimage through the window of the café. "That's original. Did you discourage her on that too?"
"No more than I had to." He shrugs at Napoleon's sharp look. "At least this one was harbouring no desire to take you away from all this."
Napoleon gives him a broad, if somewhat thin, smile. "It'll take more than the likes of Lucy Vermont to make an honest man of me. Lovely girl though she is. You know, she might not be a bad fit for this profession..."
"Be careful, Napoleon. I may find it in my heart to tell the next one that all you're looking for is the woman who really understands."
"I do appreciate it, Illya," says Napoleon, with a sudden turn to sincerity that Illya is not wholly prepared for. "You know I don't try to lead anyone on..."
"...you're just so eminently loveable they cannot help themselves, I suppose."
"But sometimes it's easier to hear what you need to hear from a third party," Napoleon continues, ignoring his interjection. "It brings perspective."
"And saves you the embarrassment," says Illya. "You can buy me lunch tomorrow as well."
Napoleon raises an eyebrow. "Is that wise? I'd hate for you to get the wrong idea, considering how eminently lovable I am." But he pays for Illya's lunch for the entire rest of the week, by which point Illya's well and truly forgiven him.
When Illya staggers out of the burning wreck of the robotics laboratory, bruised, bloody and armed with only an empty THRUSH rifle and his own ability to bluff, he's not especially surprised to encounter Napoleon making his way in. Circumstances being what they are, nor is he surprised when Napoleon's reaction to the sight of him is to steady his gun and declare, "I'm sorry Illya, but you'll understand if I have to make sure you're really my friend."
Evidently his double had been even more convincing than he'd feared. Illya fixes Napoleon with a withering look. "Allow me to explain to you in excruciating detail my feelings on Section I's quota system."
Napoleon breaks into a grin and lowers his gun. "No need, partner. Welcome back."
"Are you sure?" Illya has had a very trying day, and the one THRUSH guard he'd shot on his way out had hardly taken the edge off. "I have some extended thoughts that I don't think I've ever shared with you before on the risk that we are now compensating for that slight on our reputation so hard that we risk drawing only more attention by the very strength of our denial."
"And I look forward to hearing all about it just as soon as we don't have this THRUSH installation to dispose of," says Napoleon, with every indication of sincerity.
"Don't think I won't hold you to that," says Illya, but turns to follow his partner back into the fray without further complaint. "Did you happen to bring a spare? I may be a little low on ammunition."
Were Napoleon a little more invested in the defence of the quota, he might have had better success not in building a case for its necessity, but in pointing out that that particular bylaw was far from being the only absurdity in the business. Certainly not when only that week an innocent man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a furtive look on his face had stepped into Del Floria's with a pile of dry cleaning, and stepped out again with a tail of several THRUSH agents who'd been watching that entrance for a new UNCLE courier. According to Mr. Del Floria, that particular customer had had a plane-ticket to Iowa for that very afternoon, and had been willing to offer a substantial tip in exchange for having his job rushed through while he waited—all of which had probably made perfectly good sense to the man himself, but which hadn't helped his case with THRUSH as they tracked him to the airport. By the time Napoleon and Illya caught up with him at the terminal, the poor man was so unnerved at having picked up yet more apparently hostile pursuit that he hadn't responded to their attempts to establish friendly credentials at all well, and had turned tail and fled at the first opportunity.
"Do you ever wonder if we generate more trouble for ourselves than we avoid with the Del Floria's façade?" Illya wonders aloud as Napoleon guides their car away from LaGuardia.
"Well, it would be hard to come up with a way to fool the enemy without also fooling poor bystanders like Mr. Adams," says Napoleon. The hapless Steven Adams had declined to supply his name to Del Floria, though he'd given it to the airport staff while booking his flight, who had been good enough to pass it on.
"If we had the enemy fooled, we wouldn't be in this position," argues Illya. "Innocent bystanders are the only people who are fooled by this nonsense; THRUSH has had our number for years. Our name is indelibly associated with Del Floria's tailor shops not merely in New York but all over the world."
"We don't have them all hidden behind tailors' shops," tries Napoleon, who doesn't seem to have a better argument on hand. "Berlin's got that office-block façade, and there's that clock shop in Geneva too... well," he corrects himself, guiltily, "there used to be that clock shop in Geneva. Varying the formula seems not to have helped."
Illya gives him a look.
"It's worth remembering it's not just THRUSH we're trying to fool," says Napoleon, looking slightly awkward. "There's plenty of other underworld types out there we'd rather not have turning up on our doorstep."
"Emory Partridge, for example?" suggests Illya.
Napoleon doesn't immediately have an answer for that one. "What about that new restaurant they've got in Oslo?" he says suddenly, a few moments later. "They've never had a major incursion there, have they?"
"Would you like to place a bet on how much longer it might take? Face it, Napoleon: the greatest regular threat we turn away with our secrecy are time-wasters and street-buskers."
Napoleon drums his fingers on the steering wheel in a thoughtful sort of way. "What's the alternative, though? Put a sign out front, announcing ourselves to the world?"
"Heaven forbid we make it easy for concerned citizens to bring us information." Illya rolls his eyes. Napoleon looks at him in surprise.
"You can't mean that, Illya! How could anyone take us seriously if we looked like any other business?"
"Of course," says Illya, dryly. "What could be more serious than having to entice our contacts into a tailor's shop dressing room, then springing our existence upon them while they stand in their underwear?"
"We've only used that method once or twice, surely," says Napoleon, though the faraway look in his eyes and a faint, tugging smile turning up the corners of his mouth suggests he's remembering those incidents rather more fondly.
Illya rolls his eyes, not expecting Napoleon to notice, and is mildly gratified when Napoleon coughs and appropriates a suitably chastised expression. He shrugs, a little helplessly. "I don't know, Illya. I guess the truth is that it's a matter of habit for everyone at this point. It might be fairly meaningless in practice, but I suppose it presents the right impression."
"That impression being?"
"That we're willing to take our security seriously! It might not work so well as it did in the good old days, but that doesn't have to be the point—we're all susceptible to signals and ceremony. Like how a Russian national of my acquaintance with language skills good enough to earn him a PhD in linguistics..."
"You've used 'dead languages' before, Napoleon. You're getting sloppy."
"...and yet still goes on maintaining a slight accent even though everyone who's worked with him long knows he can easily fabricate just about any other accent you like, except that of American English." Napoleon finishes, pointedly.
"I have no idea what you're on about," Illya tells him, stiffly. In truth, of course, his efforts to learn to mimic American pronunciation came to an abrupt end back in early '62 on the one and only occasion when he'd been legitimately mistaken for a Yank—an event that had horrified him more than he could possibly have imagined before the fact.
"Mm-hm." Napoleon seems to take that as his cue to change the subject back to work. "Read me off Adams' address again, we must be getting close."
Mr. Adams had not, in fact, gone directly home after abandoning his flight and fleeing the airport—that would have been far too convenient. The two of them elect to tackle the situation by splitting up, Napoleon to decoy off as much of Adams' remaining THRUSH pursuit as possible, while Illya tracks down the man himself. The sun is getting low in the sky by the time Illya finally manages to find the poor man and talk him down from the metaphorical edge with reassurances that they mean him no harm. Illya leaves him with a fervent apology and the promise that UNCLE will reimburse him for his lost ticket—budgets be damned, it's the least they can do.
"You know," says Napoleon, when Illya rejoins him, "there are some who'd take that much distrust of the authorities as a sign of a guilty conscience."
"If you insist on approaching the matter from only the most cynical perspective," Illya replies.
Napoleon gives him a wry smile. "I take it you got the rest of his story out of him then?"
"Early this morning Mr. Adams discovered a prominent semen stain on the back of his best shirt, and with only hours to go before his flight to a family wedding in Iowa—which you may note he has now missed thanks to THRUSH's interference—he rushed out in search of a dry cleaner who could get the job done in a hurry. Section III are checking out a few of the particulars as we speak, but there seems little superficial reason for doubt. He claims to have been under the impression that his THRUSH pursuit intended blackmail, and that his UNCLE pursuit represented the police."
Napoleon, who has not made it to Number 1 of Section II wholly without merit, raises his eyebrows. "On the back of his shirt, you say?"
Illya allows himself to smirk. "Small wonder he was willing to drive so far out of his way to find a dry-cleaner who would not recognise him from past or future business. Or that THRUSH's surveillance team found his manner suspicious. He was mortified by the idea anyone might discover that particular liaison, and much relieved to know how little interest we at UNCLE have about policing that sort of behaviour, outside of our own employees."
"And for that, the poor bastard gets taken for a new courier," Napoleon adds, vaguely. "A shame they couldn't have known he'd never have made our hiring criteria to begin with."
"You might be surprised just how common that might be," says Illya. "Or perhaps not, if you've ever listened to me on the subject before."
Napoleon looks suddenly distracted. "You know, now that you mention it, I did look up that report you mentioned—the Kinsey Report? Some eye-opening stuff..."
Illya blinks at him. This he had never expected. "You read it?"
"Well, not cover to cover, but enough to get the gist," says Napoleon, who seems increasingly far away. "I would have liked to think I'd been around long enough that it wouldn't be able to surprise me, but some of the claims it made about the sensitivity of the female... ah, body, in particular—and the number of women who don't experience their first orgasm until... well, higher than I'd ever have guessed, and I've certainly been around long enough not to have many illusions left about the performance of the average man in bed..."
A sneaking suspicion blossoms rapidly into a horribly real possibility in Illya's mind as Napoleon rambles on. "You only read the volume on women, didn't you?"
Napoleon grins at him. "Did you know only around fourteen percent of women are supposed to be regularly capable of multiple orgasms? From my own experience, I would've thought the figure at least twice as high."
Illya stares at Napoleon in mute disbelief. He doesn't know what's worse—the sheer, unrestrained ego of this man or that he, personally, could ever have imagined Napoleon's reaction to the Kinsey Reports might be otherwise. "No-one likes a show-off, Napoleon," he grumbles.
Napoleon stubbornly declines to stop beaming.
Sometimes, in his darker moments, Illya wonders how his superiors at UNCLE might respond if he asked to be reassigned on the basis that he finds his partner too distracting to continue to work with efficiently.
All protests aside, Illya had had no expectation that Napoleon was so keen to hear Illya's further thoughts on his pet topic as he'd claimed outside the THRUSH lab. So it's a real surprise when, a mere month or two later, Napoleon brings the topic up again, without prompting, and not even in especially favourable circumstances. "Illya. Why don't you tell me about that theory you had about the quota back during that Robotics Affair—the one about the risk we're defeating our own purpose with the strength of our denial?"
Illya blinks at him, momentarily convinced he must have misheard. "Now? You must be joking."
"Why not? The ETA on our evac is another five minutes. Humour me," says Napoleon. "I'm curious."
Illya tries to remember the long lost thread of thought he'd caught onto that day—an argument that had then seemed to come to him fully formed, if from an assortment of half-formed ideas of earlier vintage. "Well. You must admit, even for a US-based espionage agency, our insistence that our men be solely heterosexual is extraordinary. No other office in the country is so determined."
He looks at Napoleon. His partner's eyes are on the horizon, not on him, but he says, "Go on, I'm listening."
The vague feeling that he's being patronised in some form flitters through Illya's awareness, but he doesn't have the concentration to spare to focus on it—now he's started on the subject, the words come almost without his bidding. "Any enemy conducting covert surveillance could reasonably draw the conclusion that the greater part of our staff are behaving like furtive queers working overtime to divert suspicion with excessive displays of heterosexuality, simply because they have been directed to do exactly that, whether they have any such leanings or no."
Napoleon looks at him and frowns. "Do you think that's likely?"
Illya shrugs lightly, or tries to. "THRUSH keeps extensive files on all our agents—including your dating life, I point out. They have entire computer systems that do little but analyse that data for weaknesses. They have tried far stranger means of coercion and blackmail.
"Meanwhile, we have ensured that the only outlet available to those who are homosexually inclined is to keep their affairs so secret that UNCLE itself is left unaware. On the one hand, we provide incentive for our agents to foster the habit of lying to us, while on the other we leave them stranded and vulnerable should the enemy discover what UNCLE does not know."
Illya blinks, and is startled to find Napoleon next to him, his hand pressing down over Illya's on the compress on his shoulder, with a firm pressure that makes him hiss slightly. "That sounds like the sort of thing you ought to bring to Mr. Waverly's attention," Napoleon offers.
"He is about as keen to hear more on the subject from me as you are," Illya tells him.
"That's hardly fair," says Napoleon. "I'm always keen to hear what's on your mind," though just at that moment he's obviously far more interested in the sirens and flashing lights announcing the arrival of their 'evac', for which Illya decides he can probably be forgiven.
Illya waits while Napoleon greets their relief. He catches the words 'concussion' and 'blood loss' as Napoleon talks to the men who step out of the ambulance, then something like '...lucid, but keeps drifting in and...' and rolls his eyes skyward at the melodrama of it all. But when he rolls them down again, he finds himself blinking muzzily at a dimly-lit hospital room, apparently alone. The pain in his right shoulder has deadened to a dull throb. When he looks to his left, however, he spots a thin pile of books as well as one manila folder, topped with a note that reads, Called back in, keep yourself entertained x NS.
Any further thoughts he may have had before drifting off again he doesn't remember later.
Sometimes, Illya all but despairs of ever making headway on the farce that has become his carefully sanitised life under the auspices of UNCLE. Though he may grumble more than some, at the end of the day he's as whipped as any other man on the New York office's staff, most of whom could go months at a time without giving the subject of the quota a second thought. There is probably no indignity or inconvenience so great that sufficient exposure cannot eventually render it mundane, and Illya knows better than most how readily that happens. As long as the constants in his life include the right to go home at night with the quiet glow of satisfaction that comes with knowing that the world is that little bit safer for his day's work, Illya can live with the constant scrutiny of his barely-existent dating life—with the absurd mandates on his behaviour imposed by the section above, and even with Napoleon's ongoing crusade to redefine the rate at which the average American women achieves more than one orgasm per night. If he can learn to live with the regularity of rope burn and being used as a test subject for experimental pharmaceuticals, what's one more inconvenience? It all becomes, in its way, routine.
If he finds himself worrying that they themselves are starting to become predictable, it's nothing on the predictability with which THRUSH seems to go on and on hitting the same beats in their interchangeable efforts to dominate this or that part of the world. It's hardly Waverly's fault if even the forces of evil have begun to bore him.
So it's not without a sort of comfortable familiarity bordering on déjà vu that Illya finds himself accompanying Napoleon to yet another bourgeois society party, where an innocent woman from California by the name of Miss Janine Garrett (PhD pending) who is even now attempting to reconnect with an old boyfriend-who-(she insists)-was-never-really-a-boyfriend, in a choreographed effort to gauge whether his new friends have sinister things in store for the world. He and Napoleon will be almost certainly recognised if there is any serious THRUSH presence at the party, but that's largely the point—when Napoleon goes up to 'introduce' himself to Janine later, her old friend's reaction should be very telling indeed.
On meeting her a few days prior, Illya had found her open, talkative and unpretentious, if perhaps a little too convinced that any reasonable person would find the latest developments in information theory as infinitely fascinating as she did. Although Janine has apparently spent most of her last year shut in a lab in Berkley, she'd needed no assistance acquiring herself an invitation to the opening gala for the new Humbolt Institute once Napoleon and Illya had impressed upon her the value of going, and has cleaned herself up for the night's festivities like an old hand.
"It'll be something to tell Mother about, next time she talks me into taking a trip back home. Probably the only thing I've done since the start of the year she'll want to know about at all," she says, with the tired resignation of a woman who comes from old money, and has spent most of her post-graduate life doing all she can to get away from it.
Napoleon seems quite able to relate, so Illya's a little surprised he's been taking such a hands-off role with Janine on this job. Perhaps he feels she doesn't need much coaching. Indeed, by the time Napoleon makes his entrance at the party at all, fashionably late, Janine has been busily catching-up with her old friend for at least three-quarters of an hour. If she's any less comfortable than she appears on the surface, even Illya must profess himself fooled.
As his cover involves posing as a waiter, Illya has spent the evening navigating the throng with a well-laden tray, enjoying both relative invisibility and the ready made excuse to approach their newest arrivals with the offering of champagne.
"Seems to be going well," Napoleon comments, having taken no time at all to zero in on where Miss Garrett is ingratiating herself to one of THRUSH's newer hirelings. "Have I missed any highlights?"
"None yet, but the night is young." Over Napoleon's shoulder, Illya sees a man in a crooked bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses stop short at the sight of the party's newest arrival. "Don't look now, but I think you've been recognised."
Napoleon smiles. "One does go to these things to be seen, no?"
"I'll keep an eye on him. You should probably start looking out for your opening with Janine."
Napoleon shrugs. "As you say, the night is young." Napoleon sips his champagne and looks at him with an expression Illya can't immediately decipher. "You know, you could be the one to approach her."
Illya blinks at him. "Why? You're the one she's expecting."
"But she's not supposed to know me either of us. It couldn't hurt to make her confusion a little more genuine." "Napoleon Solo, reluctant to approach a woman? I never thought I'd live to see the day."
Napoleon shrugs, sheepish. "I just thought she seemed more your type than mine. I wouldn't want to get in your way." Illya looks at him in disbelief. "You know," Napoleon adds, waving a hand, "similar interests, similar frustrations, neither of you technically have PhD's..."
"Really, Napoleon? We're using that tired joke to set me up with women now?"
"It's still right there in your transfer file," Napoleon winks at him, for all that he should have realised by now how very much he's barking up the wrong tree. "She's not to know it's not genuine if you think it might help give you an in. Just pick a suitably esoteric field, and..."
"It was part of my undercover identity one time, Napoleon! How it made it into that file at all I have no idea." In all honesty, Illya could at least guess—the rest of his education history in that job had been true, and probably the most up-to-date copy the British UNCLE office had on hand—but Illya is far too busy seething to care about minor over-generalisations when the very idea that he could have ever found the time to finish a PhD in between his undergraduate years, naval service, and near on ten years as a professional agent is so patently ridiculous. When even one's boss has taken to making completely deadpan references to the same—in the presence of civilians, no less—it must surely be time to let the joke die. "Besides, I think by now you and I must have run through just about every esoteric field in circulation."
"What about Musical Theory?" says Napoleon, looking for all the world like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. "You could pull that one off, no trouble."
Illya gives him a look. "Thankyou, but no. I do not know whether to be touched or insulted that you think I need the assistance, if I wanted to approach Janine at all, which I don't."
"I wouldn't go so far as to say you needed it," Napoleon offers, finally somewhat apologetic. "Alright, alright. I'll approach Janine."
"We're here to assess her friend's position with THRUSH, not his reaction to competition," Illya reminds him. Napoleon just grins.
While Napoleon stops Janine on her way back from the bathroom several minutes later, Illya takes the opportunity for a closer look at the man in the crooked bow tie, who now appears to be hiding behind the canapés. If he's recognised Napoleon, he doesn't seem to have brought the fact to anyone else's notice while Illya's been watching his behaviour, and he doesn't pay Illya any attention as he approaches. Helpfully, he does empty his glass in the same period, granting Illya the perfect excuse to sidle up behind him, tray at the ready. "Another glass?"
The man in the crooked tie jumps half an inch in the air, but recovers too quickly on recognising Illya as a waiter to have recognised him as anything else. "Oh, yes, thankyou," he mutters, distracted, taking a new glass and bringing it to his lips for a sizable gulp. He sneaks another sidelong look at the corner of the room, where Napoleon is busy 'introducing' himself to Janine, and shivers, then drains his glass in a hurry and reaches for another.
"Are you alright, sir?" asks Illya, fascinated, but none the wiser.
"What? Oh, yes, yes," says the man in the crooked tie. "Oh, look at me, hiding behind the hors d'ourves like I've seen a ghost." This comes out with considerable disgust. "If my wife was here to see me..." He breaks off into a short burst of hysterical giggling, and faintly attempts to wring his hands, leading to the spillage of a certain amount of his drink. "What am I supposed to say if he sees me?"
"Someone you used to know?" Though Illya is increasingly convinced this man is no more THRUSH than he or Napoleon, the exchange is ringing warning bells in his head. He doesn't need to be an enemy agent to have been party to some occasion when Napoleon might have found it necessary to fake his own death in the past, and if there's any risk of him causing a scene, it would be best headed off at the pass.
"Knew, oh, if that isn't even the half of it!" squeaks the man in the crooked tie. "Not that we thought he was dead, not as a matter of any certainty, but when a man disappears like that, so suddenly... and especially after a night like that..." Another short, high-pitched giggle escapes the man's lips, while Illya's previous train of thought comes grinding to a halt.
"A night like...?" he echoes. Surely he must have misunderstood.
"A regular whirlwind weekend of romance," the man sighs. "Oh, why did I ever let him talk me into taking him home? Oh, who do I think I'm fooling, it isn't every day a man like that looks twice at a poor fool like me, and the mouth on him..." The man in the crooked tie blinks blearily at Illya. Only with some difficulty does he seem to find his way back to the present, his face slowly shifting into a look of dawning horror. "My god, why did I say that? I've never told anyone that before! Please say you won't tell anyone! I don't know what I'd do if this got out."
Illya looks down at the remaining contents of his serving tray with a look of dawning horror all his own.
Camouflaged among the stalks of a vase of lilies near Napoleon's table, Illya spots a carefully placed listening device of a familiar make. Peeling it gently off the side of a flower, he drops it into the water below, where it fizzes and sparks rewardingly before falling silent with the faintest of pops.
"I'd be careful what you say," he warns Napoleon, arriving at his side with a fresh glass of champagne. "The room has been bugged. Probably from several places." Illya drops the newly-deactivated bug onto the table as evidence, still damp from when he'd fished out back out of the vase. "We should be safe enough here, but there may be more around."
Napoleon raises his eyebrows and reaches for the glass. "Just when I was starting to think this was a boring party. Any theories on what they might be hoping to hear?"
"Not yet, though our avian friends seem to have stacked the deck in their favour," Illya tells him "I would go easy on the drinks—I believe they may have been drugged with some sort of truth agent."
Caught with the drink midway to his mouth, Napoleon is professional enough to curb his reaction to one sharp look in Illya's direction. Rather than abort the motion, he delicately brings the glass to his nose, which he wrinkles before returning the drink to the table. "Terrible thing to do to good champagne. Do I take it you've been hearing more than your share of indiscrete conversation around the room tonight?"
"One of the guests had started early. You may remember him, in fact—he certainly remembered you." Illya lifts his chin towards where he'd left the unfortunate man in the crooked tie sitting down with a large glass of water, while Illya made a quick detour to convince one of the regular staff to organise him a cab home. He's not looking their way, fortunately—the last thing that poor man needs to see is the waiter he'd poured out his heart to talking to the very man who'd triggered his near-nervous breakdown. Illya's partner is, of course, still professional as ever, so the moment he recognises his old acquaintance manifests only in the sight of Napoleon going suddenly very still.
"Ah," he says, indistinctly.
"His wallet lists him as a Terrence Unwin, a personal secretary to an investor in this event by the name of Maurice Pike," Illya supplies.
"It would, yes," says Napoleon, who still sounds somewhat distracted. "How much did he say about...?"
"He seems to have been distressed at your sudden departure from his acquaintance, but you may be pleased to know he remembers you quite... favourably."
"Well, it was one of those operations, you know," says Napoleon, vaguely, "we were on completely the wrong track where we were, and by the time we realised... well, I was reassigned so fast there wasn't much time for proper farewells. I did feel rather bad about it after the fact, but by then there was nothing to be done."
"And Mr. Unwin?"
Napoleon gives him a sideways look. "How well did you say he remembered me?"
"Something relating to your mouth came up specifically."
Napoleon shifts his weight in the self-conscious sort of way that he really ought to have trained himself out of years ago. "I suppose I did... talk rather a lot."
"I can believe you did," says Illya, now watching Napoleon's body language with some fascination. "But perhaps you could explain to me exactly how it was you came to seduce the innocent Mr. Unwin?"
Napoleon goes very, very still, and for some long seconds, Illya gets no reply at all.
"Well," says Napoleon at last, with a slight cough, "we were working under the understanding he and Pike might be connected with a, ah, a rather sinister network of well-connected homosexual gentlemen of considerable means—a sort of old-boys club scattered along the western seaboard."
"A sinister homosexual network?" Illya repeats.
"You know the sort—it wouldn't be the first time a few members of the upper-crust with unorthodox sexual tastes formed themselves a support network of like-minded individuals. And you know how governments get nervous about that sort of thing—traditions of secrecy, circulating distrust in the establishment, everyone with blackmail material on everyone else—the potential to turn that sort of thing to criminal enterprises is obvious. We had reason to believe they might even be involved in an international trafficking operation. We needed an in."
Nothing like a good sinister homosexual conspiracy to get national security concerns all fired up. "And you thought Mr. Unwin might be a member? Tell me, how did that work out for you?" Somewhere at the very back of Illya's mind is the awareness that he's being terribly, terribly cruel to Napoleon, but any thought of taking pity on him is a thousand miles away. Illya has waited for this moment far too long.
"Well, to make a long story relatively short," says Napoleon, looking uncomfortable, and still very definitely not looking at Illya, "he wasn't."
"I'm sure he'd be very comforted to know that." On the other side of the room, Mr. Unwin is now being led to the door by the arm, happily oblivious to the intense discussion of his history and preferences going on mere yards away. "Tell me, was he married then, or is that a more recent development?"
"Married?" The look Napoleon throws at Illya has a sharpness that plainly implies he suspects he's being messed with.
"He mentioned some concern over what his wife might think of the matter," Illya tells him, with nothing but perfect honesty.
Napoleon looks sharply back at Unwin's retreating back. "Terry, married? I wonder how that came about. It doesn't sound like much of a recipe for marital bliss."
"Who are we to say? You admit your acquaintance was short."
"Illya," says Napoleon, "believe me when I tell you no part of my acquaintance with Terry Unwin—no matter how long or short it may have been—left me in any doubt which way his preferences lie."
"You might be surprised to learn how many people prove to have some flexibility to their preferences, when the right situation presents itself," says Illya, with no small personal satisfaction. "Say, for example, when their own employers send him out with orders to seduce another man."
Napoleon gives a short, defeated sigh. "Well, obviously, it's not the sort of operation you'd see passing muster nowadays, but the rules have changed since then."
"It must have been quite the trial, for such a resolutely heterosexual man as yourself."
Napoleon shrugs, and gives Illya one of those cocky smiles that don't quite seem to reach his eyes. "Well, it's not as though I don't have some idea of what a man likes in bed, you know. Not so hard to bluff your way through."
Illya can feel his eyebrows winching skywards; even now, is Napoleon really trying to pretend he's as straight as he's always pretended? "Your willingness to sublimate your natural inclinations in the name of the job is laudable indeed," he tells Napoleon, in a voice roughly as dry as his own recent sex life.
"Well, I wouldn't say it's the worst thing I've done in the name of the job." Napoleon raises his glass to Illya in a jaunty toast, and is about to take a sip before apparently thinking better of it.
Illya narrows his eyes. Napoleon, for all his skill as a spy, is still fundamentally one of nature's method actors, and his range has always been limited. Those characters he plays best in the field are always those who are, at heart, still functionally Napoleon Solo. That he of all people could manage to lie back and think of world peace in bed with a man—let alone a man who has evidently come out of the encounter so obviously impressed—is all but unthinkable.
"Look, Illya," says Napoleon, who can hardly have missed Illya's skepticism, "at the risk of ruining your moment, do you think we could pick up this conversation again sometime we're not supposed to be working?"
Napoleon's gaze leads Illya's to where Janine's old boyfriend and his companions are standing across the room, in what appears to be rapidly heating discussion. A convenient diversion, maybe, but Napoleon does have a point.
"Alright," says Illya, "but don't think we won't be returning to it once this affair is done with."
"Perish the thought," says Napoleon, pushing to his feet.
He leaves his drink on the table.
Forty-eight hours, one gunfight, two kidnappings, a great number of hasty explanations, one brief but unpleasant stay in manacles, fourteen arrests, and one very satisfying explosion later, Illya finds himself back in his hotel room with Napoleon, sharing a bottle of unadulterated champagne and the knowledge of a job well done. In addition to the dismantling of a significant satrapy, a very recent THRUSH code book is already on its way back to New York headquarters in the hands of a special courier, along with two almost-still-working specimens of THRUSH's latest model listening devices for the lab boys to have a play with, which THRUSH had thoughtfully left for them to find in their own hotel room.
Illya and Napoleon themselves are not expected back until late the following afternoon, granting them a comfortable evening and a slow morning in which to relax before catching their flight. Somewhere in the excitement Napoleon would seem to have missed any chance he might have had with Miss Garrett, who is presently out somewhere reconnecting with her old-friend-who-may-very-soon-become-a-boyfriend (and who had been legitimately horrified by the revelation of what his new employers really wanted to do with his research)—but then, Napoleon had never seemed much invested in that one to begin with. Despite a few minor cuts and bruises and one ruined suit, the only real injury either of them can boast in the wake of this affair was the incidental damage done to Napoleon's pride. Were more of their affairs tied up so neatly, Illya would be a happy man.
So comfortable is the atmosphere, as Napoleon shares some trivial anecdote from his own university days, that Illya finds himself unexpectedly reluctant to drag the conversation back to the subject of Napoleon's past liaison with the unwitting Terry Unwin. He finds his thoughts drifting instead to that of another evening, now long years past, when he and Napoleon had shared a bottle of very similar vintage in celebration of a successful affair, back when their partnership was still new. Illya recalls the impulse that had struck him then—to reel Napoleon in by his tie and see what might happen; the conviction that had followed that there would be plenty of time later to make his own assessment of how the advance might be received. Illya would like to think he's a wiser man now than he was then, nevermind how many years the proof of Napoleon's true sexual flexibility has eluded him.
He looks over at Napoleon, lounging comfortably in the corner of the couch, his glass (empty but for the dregs) hanging loosely from his fingers, relaxed and easy in the half light of the hotel lamp, flushed with success and half a bottle of bubbly, and thinks to himself, well, why not?
Napoleon has shed his suit jacket, tie and shoes earlier in the evening, reclining on the couch now in his shirt and his socks. He watches Illya with a faint curiosity as he puts down his glass without making motion to refill it, then leans over without a word to fish Napoleon's own out of his fingers and return it to the table alongside the other. Napoleon still doesn't seem to have quite made up his mind what his partner is doing until Illya aligns his body with Napoleon's and brings their lips together. His only protest is the gentlest of sighs as Illya begins to kiss him, and with a few moments of encouragement, begins to kiss back slowly, his hand coming to rest at the small of Illya's back, and for a while Illya almost believes he could be content to do this forever.
When Illya begins on the buttons of Napoleon's shirt, the spell breaks, however briefly, as Napoleon draws carefully back from Illya's lips. While Illya takes this as his excuse to begin to work his way down Napoleon's neck, he hears Napoleon murmur, "This probably isn't a good idea, you know."
"Isn't it?" With one hand lightly exploring the dusting of hair over Napoleon's chest, his lips fixed beneath Napoleon's jaw, Napoleon's hand still curled at the small of his back, Illya feels very little obligation to play fair. "Perhaps you are right," he says, and pulls smoothly away, resting back on his heels. Napoleon watches him with a look of mild and suspicious confusion, which does not recede as Illya gets to his feet, pulling Napoleon with him.
"This would be much more comfortable in bed," he tells Napoleon's faintly flummoxed expression, then leads him the short distance through their hotel room and presses him down into the sheets of one of the hotel beds with hardly a whisper of resistance.
That one, half-hearted protest remains the single longest string of words Illya hears from him for the rest of the night, which passes with only the commentary of a series of soft sighs and deliciously satisfying moans from Napoleon's lips—interspersed by Illya's own name, whispered like a forbidden sacrament, banishing with it any doubt that Napoleon is less than fully aware of precisely who is making love to him. His hands on Illya's body fall both certain and uncertain, speaking of long experience made new again by the circumstances of company; Napoleon clutches at him as though he might evaporate if not held tightly, while Illya wonders silently that he could ever have doubted his welcome in this wonderful, ridiculous man's arms
Years of long practice at waking under strange and threatening circumstances have instilled in Illya the habit of separating dream from recollection and orienting himself upon waking before opening his eyes. There is light filtering in around the thin hotel curtains, a taste in his mouth suggestive of somewhat more than a long evening's careless drinking, and a tilt to the mattress underneath him that speaks to the weight of a second body, not far displaced from his own.
The deep warmth and satisfaction that spreads through his body on recalling just how he'd fallen asleep the night before would likely have shocked him with his own sentimentality, were Illya even a little more awake, but on the edge of sleep this seems a moment to be savoured at length.
"You're looking very smug for this hour of the morning," Napoleon mutters, from the other side of the bed, having evidently woken already.
Illya opens his eyes on his partner, and decides he has not the least inclination to pretend otherwise. "You cannot imagine why?" he teases, rolling to face Napoleon properly with his head propped upon an arm. "I did have a most satisfying evening."
Napoleon's eyes flicker to where the bed sheet falls to reveal the upper part of Illya chest, then back up again. "Did you now?" he says, and for once in his life, there's nothing in his tone to suggest he's fishing for a compliment. In the light of morning he appears wary and sober, which is perhaps not wholly unfair.
"I did indeed," says Illya, who will be fair later, when it suits him. "You see, I had opportunity to confirm a long-held theory about a good friend of mine."
"That you, Napoleon, have never been so exclusive in your attraction to the opposite sex as would have your colleagues believe."
"Ah," says Napoleon. "Well. That's a little unfair of you, don't you think? It's not as though you'd ever admitted as much to me before last night, or not in so many words."
Illya raises an eyebrow. "Napoleon, if you have known me this long and never realised that my preference is very much for men, I'll have to think you a very poor spy."
Napoleon seems momentarily at a loss for an answer. "Well. In my defence, around the time you and I met, I was... noticing that around the office more than usual, and in most cases it seemed diplomatic not to notice, if you take my meaning. By the time we were better acquainted, I suppose the habit was ingrained."
"As was your habit of compensating for your attraction to men by exaggerating that for women past the bounds of all proportion?"
Napoleon gives a wry smile. "I do like women, Illya. The fact I'm not so... discriminating about my partners as some doesn't change that. Conforming to Section I's rules has never been a trial for me. Besides, I am Number 1 of Section II—I have an example to set."
"Ironic, considering that UNCLE itself is apparently quite aware of your proclivities."
"Well, as someone just reminded me, they are spies. There are personal secrets on the files about each and every one of us," says Napoleon, reasonably, but by the time his eyes have flicked to Illya and away again, some of that confidence seems to have deserted him. "What was it that gave me away? Besides events of this week, I mean."
"Other than my finely-tuned instincts?" Illya allows a warm smile to spread across his lips. "You have been flirting with me very nearly since the day we met."
The blank look Napoleon gives him is almost comical. "I have not. Have I?"
Illya raises his eyebrows.
"Well. Perhaps a little," Napoleon allows. "You never seemed to mind."
"Mind? No. But you are quite the expert in the art of mixed messages, my friend. You must realise you could have come to me at any time in our long acquaintance, and I would not have turned you down."
Napoleon shifts, uneasy. "I suppose if I'd given the matter any serious thought, I would have."
Illya lifts his head slightly. "Then why didn't you? You didn't reach your rank of chief of enforcement simply by blindly following the rules to the letter."
The question seems to catch Napoleon slightly unawares. "Well," he says, with that very particular intonation that suggests a narrowly controlled stutter, "I have always found, as a rule, that it's wiser to keep some space between my professional relationships and personal ones."
Illya frowns; Napoleon's answer makes no sense. He could count on his fingers the number of women Napoleon has seen in the last year who he'd met in any non- professional setting. Whether innocents recruited in the course of their work, femme fatales encouraged to believe he's taken the bait, or simply UNCLE secretarial staff invited out from the office foyer, Napoleon has never bothered to maintain any division between his professional and love lives; he'd hardly have the time for the both of them otherwise. Unless... "Is that your way of saying you don't trust that you could sleep with me without falling in love with me?"
"Ah," says Napoleon, caught. "Well. That's... I don't know that that's the best way to put it..."
Napoleon stares at him for several seconds, expression unreadable, then sighs, long and deep. "Look, Illya, I know I probably had this coming—I'm not even going to try to pretend I didn't enjoy what we did last night, but you must realise this can't continue between us."
The possibility that in needling Napoleon so mercilessly he's pushed too far too fast settles on Illya like an icy cobweb. "No, I don't see that I must realise any such thing."
"The rules exist for a reason." Napoleon is once again studiously not looking at him. "How long do you think we'd be able to keep this secret, realistically? We may be professionals, but so is everyone watching us. Sooner or later we'd get careless, and either UNCLE or THRUSH would catch us at it, and I don't know which would be the greater disaster for our careers. What we do is too important to take those kinds of chances."
Illya gapes at him. He knows Napoleon far too well to argue with him when he uses that tone of voice—he has only to wait, and the world will prove the error of his judgement more emphatically than Illya could ever hope to—but the cowardice of Napoleon's logic is almost more than can be borne. "So you're saying that for the good of world peace, we must deny ourselves?"
Napoleon rolls over and makes to get out of bed. "Don't make this harder than it needs to be, Illya, please."
Illya stares at his back, stunned by the breadth of Napoleon's denial. If he thinks either of them would be able to get this particular genie back in its bottle now, he's more fool than Illya ever dreamed. He can't begin to imagine Napoleon lasting so much as a week.
Napoleon, in fact, lasts somewhat less than an hour. How much less will be lost to the ages—there's no clock in the bathroom, and Illya certainly doesn't stop to look for one as Napoleon closes the door behind the hotel maid who'd brought up their breakfast tray, and turns back to the room. Specifically, he turns back to lay his eyes on Illya, newly emerged from the bathroom and still damp and flushed from the shower, wearing nothing but a single towel slung low around his hips. Illya is entirely guilty of lounging in the doorway (after he catches the pole-axed look on Napoleon's face, if not before) and raising an eyebrow as he sees his partner swallow.
The next thing Illya knows, he's being pushed backwards and all but tackled onto the bed, where Napoleon proceeds to spend what's left of their hour furiously taking him apart with his mouth and hands, until there's nothing left of Illya but a writhing mass of need, able to communicate only in moans and barely articulate fragments of Napoleon's name. He comes with his hands clenched so tight around Napoleon's arms that he knows he's left bruises.
If Napoleon imagines for a moment that Illya is going to give him up now he's finally tasted this, he's a fool without equal.
Breakfast is well and truly cold by the time they get to it, and Illya very much in need of another shower, but he doesn't care one whit.
"Perhaps," Napoleon says, picking at his toast, "there's a case to be made that this... thing between us serves a greater purpose than I'd considered."
"Oh?" Illya is very nearly finished with his own generous continental—not nearly so appetising as it would have been fresh, though he's more than prepared to draw out the meal if Napoleon has something to say.
"Obviously, I've missed the freedom to sleep with the occasional man more than I'd recognised," Napoleon reasons. "And as long as that temptation is there, obviously it's far safer for me to get it out of my system with you, than anyone I couldn't trust to be so discreet."
Illya swallows a mouthful of eggs and keeps his eyebrows under strict control. "That would seem a very reasonable way to look at the situation."
"For which matter," Napoleon goes on, "it's hardly fair of UNCLE to expect you to have kept your natural proclivities under wraps for so long, without outlet. And it's certainly safer for you to explore those proclivities with your partner, rather than risk temptation to explore less secure avenues."
"How altruistic of you," Illya mutters. It almost doesn't matter how shamefully Napoleon is deluding himself. They've been up barely an hour or two, and already he's bargained their continuing liaison all the way to being permissible as an occasional luxury. Why waste effort arguing the point when he can simply wait, and let Napoleon do the work for him?
And there the matter lies, and could quite comfortably have lain without further re-examination for some time—excepting only one final development to arise as they pack their bags and prepare to check out of the hotel. It's only as the two of them do the obligatory last sweep for possessions accidentally left in odd corners that they make the discovery of a well-hidden THRUSH camera, secreted behind the bedroom mirror.
The return flight to New York is a sober affair. Illya is not yet ready to regret his actions over the past twelve hours, but has had to concede that he may yet find the need to, depending on how the news of their indiscretion is received.
"It's possible that with the nearest satrapy dismantled, there may be no-one still monitoring the camera feed," he suggests to Napoleon, somewhere in the second or third hour of the flight.
"It's possible," Napoleon agrees. It's the most he's said to Illya in hours.
"But we must still report the incident officially," Illya sighs, voicing what they're both thinking. "And the precise nature of the scenes the camera may have captured with it."
The knowledge that Napoleon doesn't blame him for this is no balm. "How serious do you think we can expect disciplinary action to be?"
Napoleon stares past him, out the window. "Well, the wonder of unwritten rules is that they tend to lack defined disciplinary procedures. But I think I can say that the possibility of dismissal for non-compliance is at least implied."
"They wouldn't dismiss us, surely. We may be technically expendable, but this is hardly a life-threatening matter. We're two of the best agents they have!"
"No," Napoleon agrees, "but they might consider... reassigning us, at least on a temporary basis."
They might consider separating us. Illya stares out the window and wonders what he'll do if his punishment is to be separated from Napoleon. Quit, in protest? Convince Napoleon to quit as well, to elope, even? The notion tastes scarcely better than the idea of having to take a new partner; leaving UNCLE over such a petty, personal issue is unthinkable.
Napoleon's hand when it falls to cover his own on the arm rest between them is a shock to Illya's system. He turns to meet Napoleon's eyes, and finds no reassurance there, only commiseration. Even the threat of separation is a fate they will, in their way, suffer together.
Illya turns his hand under Napoleon's and laces their fingers together. He squeezes once, in silent gratitude, and then lets go. It may be too late to worry about discretion now, but things can always get worse. This may be the time to show the universe he's learnt his lesson.
Illya has faced enough difficult missions in his time that he's able to face the door to their boss's office without flinching. Inside waits Mr. Waverly, the sight of whose characteristically severe features does nothing for Illya's confidence that he and Napoleon will be able talk their way out of this one.
"Ah, Mr.Solo, Mr.Kuryakin." Oblivious to Illya's raging internal state, Waverly greets them as casually as he might after any other mission. "I trust you had an uneventful flight?"
Illya exchanges a glance with Napoleon as they find their chairs. "Excruciatingly so, sir."
"I really must congratulate you gentleman on the outcome of your recent endeavour." Waverly taps out his pipe into his ash tray as he speaks, then reaches for a file in front of him. "You'll be pleased to know the code book you retrieved has arrived safely. With its help, we've already intercepted and decoded few very interesting THRUSH communications. There are two in particular that I'd like to bring to your attention before we get down to other business."
Out of the corner of his eye, Illya catches Napoleon sneaking a look his way. This is not at all how debriefings usually begin. Then again, if Waverly is so taken with the outcome of their latest mission as all this, it certainly wouldn't hurt to have it at the front of his mind before his two top agents admit their bad news.
"It seems," Waverly continues, "that some ambitious THRUSH surveillance expert had only this last week turned in a distressingly detailed summary of the romantic histories of all known agents in our New York staff. Did you know Agent Cantrell was homosexually inclined, Mr. Solo?"
The look on Napoleon's face strongly suggests that even if he had known, this would not have significantly tempered the surprise of being reminded of it, in these of all circumstances. "Ah... he is, sir?"
"No, and I'd imagine no-one else at the office did either. The details of the very few such liaisons in his personal history file are buried very deeply indeed. And yet it would appear that THRUSH has managed to uncover evidence of at least one such incident, and—reading between the lines of their own report—possibly several more we at UNCLE were unaware of. He's not the only high-ranking agent named here either, not by any means."
Waverly does not look at Illya as he says this. He does not direct so much as a flicker of a glance Illya's way, significant or otherwise. But in that moment, Illya knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he's one of the agents named in that report. There's more than enough in his history for anyone who might go looking for it.
Maybe Napoleon's in there too.
"What this enterprising young THRUSH has flagged as particularly notable," says Waverly, "is that almost none of the agents listed here have had a single homosexual encounter anywhere in their extensive surveillance records since '62. The nearest thing they're able to cite is a very short list of incidents where the agent in question had gone to such extremes of caution in arranging the event that THRUSH were forced to rely on inference to determine the assignation had actually occurred at all. The report cites this as clear evidence that the fear of discovery of any such conduct among our senior agents must be extreme." Waverly directs a brief but severe look up over his reading glasses at the greater room. "And on that point, I'm ashamed to admit that he was very much on the money."
Illya listens to all this with the strangest sense of detachment, verging even on déjà vu, even as Napoleon shoots a significant look his way. He'd almost forgotten the occasion when, half-concussed and leaking badly, he'd outlined an elaborate and largely spontaneous theory that UNCLE's scheme of overcompensation might eventually manage defeat its own purpose. Hearing now almost the very same echoed back to him on Waverly's lips is the most surreal experience in his recent memory. In other circumstances, he might well have found it perversely vindicating. Circumstances being what they are, however, a cold sense of foreboding is his only reward.
"The rest of the text," Waverly continues, "goes on to outline a number of methods THRUSH might use to capitalise on the situation, from blackmail to entrapment to the production of wholly forged material in order to convince our agents they'd been caught in the act. I'm pleased to say that there appears to be no suggestion that the work of their old friend Dr. Newgate has been remembered—that much at least appears to have wholly escaped their notice—but the implications of this report are otherwise very concerning indeed!"
Illya dully registers that Waverly's pause at the end of this declaration might suggest some sort of reaction is expected. Napoleon coughs politely. "You, ah, mentioned a second piece of intelligence you thought noteworthy, sir?"
Waverly blinks. "Oh, yes, yes—it will surely interest you gentlemen to know that only a matter of hours after the first report would have reached THRUSH Central, they received a report from a separate surveillance team, who'd had the fortune to capture some video footage of two of our senior agents engaged in lively sexual escapades in a hotel room in California. Yourself and Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly looks calmly at the paper in his hand as he speaks. Anyone capturing video footage of this confrontation wouldn't have had the least hope of guessing the gravity of the subject from his face alone.
Illya looks at Napoleon in shock. Napoleon doesn't meet his eyes, he's staring fixedly at Mr. Waverly. "Sir, we..."
If Waverly notices Napoleon's half-hearted interruption, he makes no sign. "The report notes the agents involved as displaying a familiarity and carelessness throughout the encounter which the operator has taken to suggest that what they've captured represents only the most recent incident in a long and well-established affair. You'll be pleased to know there's some doubt as to the blackmail value of the footage; apparently both your faces are hidden for the more significant part of the action. The chief interest here was in questioning whether any previous memos to that effect had been received by Central, or perhaps accidentally excluded from the files THRUSH keeps on the two of you. They seem to consider it a matter of some considerable oversight that such a factor in your relationship could so long have been missed."
Looking up from his papers at last, Mr. Waverly takes in the thoroughly poleaxed expressions on both faces before him with a serene sort of patience that gives nothing away. "I must say, the timing of the event is serendipity itself! I think it more than likely that anyone at THRUSH Central reviewing these two reports together will have no option but to presume the earlier must represent a work of gross incompetence. How anyone they could spend so many months avidly tracking our agents for the least sign of active homosexualism and yet miss the evidence that the two top agents of our division were not only in the midst of an affair, but so unconcerned with subterfuge that they would partake in a hotel room in which they had already uncovered evidence of enemy surveillance... why, they'd be laughed out of the room! In the unlikely event that they do attempt some form of blackmail, I'm sure we can all agree that forewarned is forearmed. Once you've assured them your superiors are already quite aware of your relationship, I'm sure they'll quickly abandon any other such attempts to capitalise on the same weakness.
"It seems I must congratulate you both on one of the most well-timed acts of spontaneous counter-intelligence I can recall in over fifty years of active service. In the meantime," he adds, "I think the time has come to put our quota system to a serious review."
Illya is still trying to get his head around everything he's just heard when Napoleon finds his tongue. "Ah... you should probably know they weren't strictly correct in presuming that we, er..."
The look Waverly shoots him shuts down anything else Napoleon may have been about to say.
"Of course," says Waverly, looking vaguely off into the distance once again, "it may be prudent to schedule a repeat performance once in a while, to head off any suspicions that the incident was staged for their benefit." Here he seems to shake himself before going on. "Good work, gentlemen. Please remember I'll expect your full report on my desk on Monday. That will be all."
On the street outside Del Floria's the air is crisp and cold. Illya watches his breath crystallise into mist in the air, and wonders at the strange ways of the universe.
"Remind me never to get into a poker game with the old man," says Napoleon, wryly.
"Considering the favour he's just done the both of us," says Illya, "a few lost rounds at poker might be the least we owe to him."
"Did he really just give us permission to-"
"He may, in fact, have made it an order." Illya finds he has little desire to discuss how much Waverly knows that he isn't letting on—or thinks he knows, or perhaps doesn't want to know. They'll probably do that later anyway, once their heads have stopped spinning, but that may take a while.
"Christ," says Napoleon, with feeling. "What now?"
Illya looks at him askance. "Now? I would say we go back to your apartment, and celebrate this day's victories at our leisure."
The look Napoleon turns back on him is tinged with suspicion. "Not yours?"
Illya shrugs. "You have the larger bed."
Napoleon breathes out, a short stream of mist, and turns to Illya properly. "You don't waste time, do you? All this, is it really that simple for you?"
Illya wants to laugh at him. What could be less simple, what could be more simple, than falling for your own partner? Let alone a partner like Napoleon. He doesn't laugh though, just pauses for a moment to admire the sight of Napoleon—the infamous Casanova, the Don Juan, and a dozen other names besides—hesitating to reach for something he wants.
"On the contrary, my friend," he says, with a smile that is for Napoleon alone, "I have wasted years questioning the wisdom of making my attraction to you plain. I have as much time to make up for."
A complete list of all the historical trivia I read up on while writing this fic (not to mention all the UNCLE-verse trivia referenced in passing) would be far too long to cram into the author's notes field here. But if you would like to hear me ramble at length about the truth about "gay bombs", the lavender scare, sexpionage, women called Wanda and the various schools of thought on Illya's PhD, I've posted the whole spiel over on my LJ. (Please do not feel you are expected to read all or any of that before commenting, however. If there's anything in this fic you'd like to comment on, far be it from me to discourage you - I am as much in it for the feedback as anyone else around these parts, shamelessly self-indulgent though this fic may be.)